Sunday 13 January 2002

Rules To Live By

“Before anyone’s pants come off, all women should assume they’ll get pregnant and all men should assume the woman will want to keep the baby. Everyone can work backward from there.” (Carolyn Hax, Tell Me About It : Lying, Sulking and Getting Fat and 56 Other Things Not to Do While Looking for Love)

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Friday 25 January 2002

Forgot to use a condom? Not on the Pill?

“I don’t want to get pregnant. A friend told me if you scoop yourself out with a coffee spoon when you’ve finished you’ll be safe. So I always carry a few disposable coffee spoons around with me,” a 17-year-old [Japanese] girl says as she waves around one of her precious utensils.

(MDN WaiWai)

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Thursday 31 January 2002

A kiss is just a kiss?

The Obvious points to a poignant item by Oblivio about his failure to count accurately the number of women he’s slept with. As an aside he writes:

“I’ve never been one for casual sex—casual kissing, perhaps, but not casual sex. So again it would seem that the MIAs are probably all women who at one time I really liked and may have even gone out for a few weeks before realizing it wouldn’t work, or vice versa.”

Is kissing more casual, less intimate than sex? Prostitutes generally don’t think so, a kiss being the one intimacy that is refused even the most regular of clients. In Jean-Luc Godard ‘s short film, Anticipation, ou l’an 2000 , made in 1966,�a soldier of the Sovietoamerican army is sent for treatment for sexual deprivation. Although the first prostitute, who represents “physical love” does not excite him, the second prostitute, “spiritual love,” arouses his passion.

As James Monaco writes , “together they invent the kiss, using the one part of the body which can both speak and make love. The screen bursts into full color, and the ubiquitous p.a. system announces that the couple�is dangerous because ‘they are making love, progress, and conversation—all at the same time.’”

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Tuesday 19 February 2002

Nobility in death

Burningbird writes:

There is no nobility in death, only in the lives we lead. Trying to make death pretty or noble hides what it really is—the loss of a life and the hurt and the pain and suffering of those who are left behind. The unfufilled potential.

That hasn’t always been my experience. My father displayed an extraordinary degree of nobility in the way he approached his death. As have certain friends whose deaths I attended. As did the men on United Airlines Flight 93, who sacrificed their lives and those of the other passengers in order to thwart the terrorists’ plan to kill hundreds or thousands in their intended target.

“Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!” said Todd Beamer. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. Or strangers. If there is no nobility in those deaths, there is no nobility in anything.

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Life and death

Burningbird replies, after reading my response to her post on nobility in death:

One clarification: I am not taking away from the nobility of the actions of a person in how they face death, or the actions they take before death. I consider these to be the last acts of life.

But to use nobility in reference in death in order to somehow make the act acceptable or more palatable—for newscasting or for politics—is wrong.

Naturally I agree with Burningbird’s second statement. And I was remiss in not referencing the original essay from onepotmeal that provoked this discussion. There are far fewer heroes in any war than the military, the politicians, or the media would like us to believe. To refer to everyone who dies in combat as a hero diminishes the true heroism of a few.

On the first point, however, I would argue that death forms part of a continuum, commencing with birth, and that there is a fuzzy boundary between “the last acts of life” and the first acts of death. It’s why I so deeply admire Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking. At the beginning of the film, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is already dead: morally, spiritually, and—for all practical purposes, since his appeal is destined to fail—physically.

The story charts his journey through death and back towards life, which he only embraces during his last moments in the execution chamber. My guess is that many lives encompass such a death, though perhaps more compressed in time, and that in this context it is impossible to separate one from the other.

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Sunday 03 March 2002

Joy and sorrow

Thunderbirds: Tracy Island I just came back from a wonderful evening out of town. In mid-afternoon I took a train to the Blue Mountains (50 miles west of Sydney), where a former colleague lives with his wife and two young boys. He met me at the station, we picked up a bottle of white wine and a six-pack of James Squire Porter from the liquor store, and headed off to his house.

I played football in the backyard with the younger boy while his older brother watched a Thunderbirds DVD. My friend, his wife, and I drank the beer (which I thought deserved better than the 3.6 out of 5 it received from beer tasting expert, eczematic). The boys and I played with their Tracy Island toy set and discussed the relative merits of Thunderbirds and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. We ate a delicious dinner of beetroot soup, Thai chicken balls with rice and salad, and pavlova (my favorite dessert). The boys had their bath and trooped off to bed. We chatted—about politics, movies, families, immigration, the boys—until I’d missed the last train. Then my friend drove me all the way home.

Though I don’t believe in regrets, I have just one: that I don’t have a child. All my closest friends have children and every time they invite me to their homes, I feel a sense of gratitude that I’ve been able to share the intimacies of family life. I’m well aware that I’m getting many of the pleasures with none of the pain, but the rewards seem so great that I’m always left wondering at what point I took the wrong turn.

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Tuesday 05 March 2002

Gone, but not forgotten

Burningbird isn’t sure “if romance, or I should say Romance, will ever show itself again”:

Did we lose Romance when we burned our bras and marched for equal rights for women? Did we as women slap one too many men when they moved to open the door for us, creating whole generations of men who are hesitant to display anything even remotely resembling a gesture that can be construed as sexist?

In a comment, Tom Graves replies:

In my case the answer’s yes. At 50, I’m only just beginning to get past that hesitancy, and trust that simply expressing polite respect to a woman won’t merely get me yet another acid-in-the-face putdown from her but risk job dismissal or even a jail sentence. That’s how bad it’s been for men in the past few decades; that’s how bad it still _is_ for men, by law, in most Western cultures. Genuine feminism - _genuine_ equal-and-different, with genuine equality of responsibility - is vitally important; but state-feminism has been the West’s Taliban, and, worse, lives in our minds, corroding our hearts, and poisoning _everyone’s_ lives with exported fear.

Abie Hadjitarkhani adds:

It’s got nothing to do with gender or power or sexual politics. It’s about thoughtfulness, selflessness, grace, and a sense of humor—all of which can be expressed simply and beautifully in tiny gestures. Attentiveness to detail and creative implementing of those tiny gestures is part of knowing how to love.
There IS a burden of grace on the recipient too. That’s part of know how to BE loved, and it doesn’t always come naturally.

When I read Tom’s and Abie’s comments I thought immediately of Andrew O’Hehir’s response to Germaine Greer’s characterization of Tolkienian literature as a “flight from reality”:

This is true enough if you understand the ideological content of her terms, so that “flight” means “thoroughgoing rejection” and “reality” means “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.”

In Ms Greer’s “progressive” narrative, a tight-knit crowd marches resolutely towards the future harboring an ill-disguised contempt for the past. Yet no-one seems to notice the mood or behavior of their companions: that the women are harried and discontented, the men alienated and resentful, the children troubled and neglected. Feminism promised women they could “have it all”—family, career, love, romance, material success—and, best of all, that these riches, this new reality, would come at little or no cost.

You’d have to be lunatic to assert that a narrow elite of Western women hasn’t benefited substantially from the triumph of feminism. And yet, why do so many women, despite all their successes, remain discontented?

Charles Frazier writes in Cold Mountain:

Ada could hear in Ruby’s breathing that she was yet awake, and so she said, Do you remember that song of your father’s about the mole in the ground? Ruby said that she did, and Ada asked if Ruby thought Stobrod had written the song. Ruby said there were many songs that you could not say anybody in particular made by himself. A song went around from fiddler to fiddler and each one added something and took something away so that in time the song became a different thing from what it had been, barely recognizable in either tune or lyric. But you could not say the song had been improved, for as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride.

That passage floored me, crystallizing beliefs I’d held unconsciously for years:

  • Everything has a cost
  • Our gains rarely outweigh our losses
  • The past is precious
  • Progress is an illusion

The Romance that Burningbird yearns for—the romance of long dresses, waltzes, smoldering looks, passionate kisses (no tongues or groping!), plucked roses, secret notes, long moonlight walks, the look, the gentle whisper light touch—has largely vanished. Burningbird admits as much when she says:

Shannon, I think in some ways you’re right—today’s society just isn’t the hearts and flowers and moonlight society it once was…good and bad.

Good and bad. The good disappears with the bad. It happens every day.

One of my favorite novels is Tanizaki Junichiro’s Sasame yuki (The Makioka Sisters), which depicts the daily life of four sisters from an upper-middle-class family—three in Osaka-Kobe, the fourth in Tokyo. First serialized in a magazine in 1943, Tanizaki’s story was almost immediately suppressed by the Japanese military censors. In Volume 3 of his History of Japanese Literature, Kato Shuichi explains:

The novel does not however go further to touch on the wider issues of the government, the army, the war and the other parts of the historical conditions of the times. Thus there is no criticism. Why then did the army censors ban this novel? Why did Tanizaki write such a novel during the war? And why is this chronicle of the minutiae of middle-class life not tedious for the reader? The answer to all these questions is essentially the same.

During the war Tanizaki must have had a bitter awareness that the life and society to which he was so attached would soon be completely lost and that no part of it—the buildings, the tableware, the cadence of local speech, the taste in kimono and the elegant countenance and deportment of the women—would ever be revived, nor would the life style that unified them. There was only one way to bring alive again these lost times and that was to write this novel. He therefore wrote, not of the ideals of sexual love which had long been his central concern, but of an entire and tangible small society, transforming his idolization of women into a celebration of all of this microcosm…

The major significance that The Makioka Sisters has in the history of the Japanese novel does not come from its defiance of tradition but from its superb realization of the possibilities of tradition…

The poignant clarity with which Tanizaki expressed his heartfelt desire to return to the world of yesterday could not have been lost on the censors. Yesterday meant a world without militarism and it was the evocation of this world, not criticism of militarism, that the authorities could not tolerate.

The movies of the 30’s and 40’s that Burningbird yearns for were based on a belief, similar to Tanizaki’s, that women are magic. The French New Wave filmmakers, who learned their craft from those Hollywood films, believed it too.

Truffaut made film after film in which the women, in James Monaco’s words, “are fuller and more sophisticated as characters, and wiser, more powerful, and more human as women, than the huge majority of women characters in films of the sixties and seventies. Godard’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, said about the film Contempt: “I’m positive that… he’s trying to explain something to his wife. It’s a letter that’s costing Beauregard [the producer] a million dollars.” What else is Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating but a hymn to the power of feminine magic?

The New Wave films blended romanticism and an appreciation for tradition with rigorous politics and a genuine respect for women. Hardly anyone watches them now. If women themselves do not believe they are magical, how can they expect Romance from men?

Pockets of Romantic behavior still exist: they remind me of the booklovers striding back and forth in the snowclad forest in Fahrenheit 451, learning by heart the texts that will soon be consigned to the flames. Truffaut made a film from Ray Bradbury’s novel:

I wanted to make the movie because I wanted to show books in difficulty, almost as if they were people in difficulty. I wanted the audience to suffer as if they were seeing animals or people burning.

These days, the books are fine; it’s the people who are burning. If our concern is for Romance, it wasn’t always like this. To paraphrase Talleyrand:

She who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.

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Sunday 17 March 2002

Disagreement and respect

A throwaway remark I made last week has generated a considerable degree of heat and friction. And although any attempt on my part to put out the flames can only be seen as that of an arsonist handing out fire extinguishers, I feel an obligation nonetheless.

My first suggestion — not just to the participants, but to all inhabitants of Blogville—is that they read The Happy Tutor’s advice on How to Disagree Agreeably, or at least Effectively, a document which was happily saved from the flames that engulfed the old Wealth Bondage building in the Houston redlight district. If the Tutor’s advice does not resonate, allow me to tell you a story about two Australian masters of the art of disagreeing agreeably.

Fred Daly and Sir James (Jim) Killen were politicians who served on opposite sides of the Australian Parliament for thirty years or so: Fred was an old-style Labor social democrat, Sir James a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. They were the best of friends. Americans might try to imagine an intimate friendship between a Chicago machine Democrat from the time of Mayor Richard J. Daley and a patrician Savannah lawyer turned Republican senator.

On the days that Parliament sat in Canberra, Fred Daly and Jim Killen would devote their considerable energies to advancing conflicting political agendas. In the evenings they ate dinner together and took pleasure in each other’s company.

In the 32 years that Fred Daly was a member of Parliament, the Labor Party was in power for only three. On November 11, 1975, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr dismissed the Labor government and installed the Liberal (actually conservative) Party in its place. Sir John Kerr was a drunken buffoon, selected by the Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the most extraordinary act of naïvety in the history of Australian politics. After the dismissal, Fred Daly refused to succumb to bitterness though he did rename his dog Sir John.

When Jim Killen was Minister for Defence, his private secretary resigned and Killen advertised for a replacement. As a joke, Fred Daly applied for the job then sent in another application for his dog. Killen gave the job to Sir John, he told Daly, because it had better writing skills.

The condolence speeches given by Fred Daly’s political opponents after his death are revealing:

Tony De Domenico: “When I was elected. He said, ‘Listen, I think the attitude you should take is clock on, get in there, go for the political jugular, clock off, and then shout the first beer.’ In fact, I think that is the way Fred Daly lived his life, whether it was politics, whether it was sport, or whether it was anything else he did. Do it properly, do it to the best of your ability, but do not take it personally and, last but not least, shout the first beer.”

Peter Morris: At the funeral I said to Jim Killen afterwards, “Jim, you’ve lost your partner.” He said, “No, I’ve got an advocate in the place that you haven’t got one.” That was the ultimate in Jim Killen and Fred Daly; that he had an advocate in the place that I did not have one.

These days, when not just politics but everyday life itself has become a bitter struggle, it’s easy to dismiss people like Fred Daly and Sir James Killen as dinosaurs. I admire them more than anyone else in Australian policital history. Why? Because they refused to allow their human relationship to be contaminated by their political convictions. They recognized that we are defined not by our beliefs but by our actions.

But it wasn’t just because they had such a high regard for each other that they were able to sustain an enduring friendship. There was something in their individual characters that made it possible to not just to respect but to genuinely like an individual whose beliefs you passionately oppose. As someone once remarked, Fred Daly never made an enemy he couldn’t be friends with. We’d all do well to emulate him.

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Monday 18 March 2002

The ambiguity of perception

I eat once a week at Mamma Maria in Newtown, an Italian restaurant owned by two Egyptian brothers (one tall, the other short, who look after the front of house) and a Portuguese woman (who runs the kitchen). The short brother is on holiday in Egypt. They never know what night I’ll be there but somehow the table closest to the entrance is always free, and they invariably sit me there. I like to sip a Crown Lager while I wait for my meal, observing the restaurant patrons as they arrive.

Tonight, a blonde woman walked in and said to the tall brother: “A table for one, please.”

“Table 8,” he said to a waiter. The woman glanced briefly at a bearded man coming up the stairs, then walked with the waiter towards her table.

“A table for one, please. At the other end of the room,” said the man who’d come in behind her.

It was a joke, of course. They sat down together, ordered a bottle of wine and, when it arrived, poured each other a glass. She drew a few strands of hair back behind her ear then reached across and took his hand. He kissed her.

I went back to reading my book (John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener). Not long after my meal was served, another couple walked in. An older man and a younger woman. She wore a yellow T-shirt, inscribed with white Chinese and black Japanese characters on the red circle of the Rising Sun. As she walked across the restaurant, I managed to decipher the first and last Chinese characters: red and blue. (In addition to two phonetic alphabets, the Japanese use about 2000 Chinese characters to represent concrete words or concepts.)

Renegade Graphic Boutique T-shirt

As I struggled to make out the middle character, I glanced up and saw that the young woman was looking at me over her shoulder with disgust. “Shit,” I said to myself, “she thinks I was perving on her tits.”

After the waiter took their order, I approached the table to apologize.

“Excuse me,” I said to them both. Then to her, “I didn’t intend to be rude. I’m studying Japanese and whenever I see Chinese characters I just seem to go into auto-pilot, trying to figure out what they mean.”

She looked skeptical.

“I recognized the first and last white characters,” I added. “I’m not sure of the middle one.”

“What are they?” she asked.

“Red and blue,” I replied. “I can recognize parts of the middle character—the part on the left means thread and that on the bottom right water—but I don’t know what the actual character means. I’ll have to look it up in the dictionary.”

She relaxed a little. “I’ve been told that the black text uses a different alphabet,” she said.

“It’s katakana,” I told her. “A phonetic alphabet. The Japanese use it for words they borrow from other languages.”

“What does it mean?” she asked me, making it sound like a test.

Strange that initially she’d taken offence at my staring at her chest, and now she was inviting me to look more closely.

Katakana is easy, once you get the hang of it. I spelt out the syllables to myself: “RE-NE-GAY-DO—GU-RA-FI-KU—BU-TI-KU.”

“Renegade Graphic Boutique,” I explained. “It’s the name of a graphic design company.”

She looked pleased. And relieved. I returned to my table.

Red and blue. A graphic design company. You’d think I’d have figured it out straight away. When I came home, I looked up the character in the dictionary. Midori. Green. Red-Green-Blue. Renegade-Graphic-Boutique. Doh!

How does one judge another’s intentions? The young woman in the restaurant was absolutely wrong in assuming that I was interested in her breasts, and yet what else was she to think when she noticed an older man staring at her T-shirt? I knew I had inadvertently offended her so I made an effort to apologize and explain myself. She was initially suspicious, then accepting, and finally curious.

In this case, there were no calamitous consequences. Her mind was set at rest, what might have been an affront turned out to have an innocent explanation. Still, it’s a strange experience to be comprehensively misjudged, to have one’s character, motives, and worth impugned on the basis of a casual glance. I had to explain myself once. Lots of other people in our society have to explain themselves—or remain silent—a dozen or more times a day.

As I left, I asked the tall brother about the couple who’d asked for separate tables. I told him it looked like an affectionate routine. “I don’t think so,” he said. “She seems really angry with him.”

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Sunday 31 March 2002

Sisterhood

In Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, pioneer feminist Phyllis Chesler documents “the usually underhanded and often devastating ways that women attack each other.” Salon reviewer Laura Miller summarizes Chesler’s findings:

Groups of women tend to espouse an “illusion of equality” (and uniformity) in which variations from the norm are seen as dangerous betrayals. “Any expression of anger or the introduction of a tabooed subject may result in the group’s scapegoating of one or two of its members,” she observes. Because one of the biggest taboos is against any overt display of female aggression, these attacks are invariably covert, indirect and maddeningly unexplained—which makes them especially devastating. “Most women have a repertoire of techniques with which to weaken, disorient, humiliate or banish other female group members,” Chesler writes.

Margaret Talbot’s recent New York Times article, Girls Just Want to Be Mean, explains in intricate detail how this repertoire of techniques is learned and honed in middle-school. Girls are just as aggressive, the research shows, though in different ways:

They were not as likely to engage in physical fights, for example, but their superior social intelligence enabled them to wage complicated battles with other girls aimed at damaging relationships or reputations—leaving nasty messages by cellphone or spreading scurrilous rumors by e-mail, making friends with one girl as revenge against another, gossiping about someone just loudly enough to be overheard. Turning the notion of women’s greater empathy on its head, Bjorkqvist focused on the destructive uses to which such emotional attunement could be put. ‘’Girls can better understand how other girls feel,’’ as he puts it, ‘’so they know better how to harm them.’’

After years of listening to interminable rhetoric about how “women enlightened by feminism would live and work together in perfect, nonhierarchical, mutually supportive solidarity,” it’s a relief to have one’s empirical observations borne out by research. Women have warm, intimate, supportive friendships. Women compete ruthlessly and undermine each other. Welcome to the real world.

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Tuesday 02 April 2002

So why don’t we pretend?

I used to stop by Salon most days, but since I started blogging I’ve been lucky to get there once a week. Today I took some time off to catch up on one of my favorite Salon features, the Since You Asked (advice to the lovelorn) column by Cary Tennis. I went all the way back to the January 29 installment and began to plod through the letters:

  • 28-year old man doesn’t feel deep emotional connection with 27-year old woman
  • married woman asks if it’s OK to look up an old flame via the Internet
  • depressed woman can’t choose between A, who she’s been seeing for ten years, and B (four years)
  • young man keeps running into lovely, mysterious woman with whom he had a brief affair

Four prosaic problems plus the requisite sensible advice, then suddenly we strike gold.

A woman writes to say she is married to a “sincere, sexy, funny, thoughtful” man who stays at home to raise their two daughters while she pursues her career, calls her to say he loves her, thinks she looks sexy in her red fleece pajamas, cooks, shops, and hangs her delicates out to dry. She loves him, she trusts him, she wants to grow old with him. Perfection, right?

Wrong.

He’s driving her batty because he won’t express an opinion. She’s tired of being told “I don’t know.”

As it happens, Cary Tennis and his wife “have this problem too.” He has opinions but believes they need to be “thought-out and informed.” This “vexes and irritates” his wife. How have they addressed this grave incompatibility?

…expert husband that I am, I have learned to have opinions about things I have no opinion about. I think the haircut is good, very good. I think the dress is excellent. Occasionally, for the sake of authenticity, the dress is not so good and must be changed, in my opinion.

Sometimes, because I am hoping she will find her keys and join me at the door, I do not have an opinion about the apple crumb cake or the new shoes. But I try to come up with something better than a grunt because I know this is not the beginner’s hill, but the expert husband slope; it is always the finals, and I am being scored.

He points out that his wife would not be surprised to learn that he’s been “faking.” She knows he’s an artist who creates things as he goes along. More importantly though, by pretending to have opinions, he has actually developed “informed and well-thought-out opinions” about all manner of things.

This is profoundly useful advice which cuts to the essence of how we learn. By pretending. By ignoring the fact that we don’t know how to do something and choosing to behave as though we did. Children learn in this way. Adults have mostly forgotten how. We convince ourselves that it’s too difficult, that our minds don’t work that way, that we lack the physical aptitude, that we need to take a course… when actually all that’s required is the mindset that says: “I know I don’t know how to do this, but if I carefully observe someone who does know, and then imitate them, I’ll be able to fool myself into doing it too.”

If there’s no-one to model, you might need to imagine how an expert might do it, or read a book to get started. The important thing is to pretend.

It’d be great to find out if the woman with the perfect/flawed husband was clever enough to lie to herself. In a case like this, it takes two smart people to create a convincing illusion and Mrs Tennis deserves at least half the credit, probably more. My instinct tells me that Mrs I’m Not Satisfied is too attached to an unattainable ideal to accept such a pragmatic solution, particularly one that would require her to pretend—for a while at least, perhaps for the rest of her life—that she believed her husband’s newly found opinions were sincere, even when they weren’t.

Reading Cary Tennis’s marvellous reply reminded me of an anecdote in Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s Frogs into Princes. Bandler and Grinder developed a therapeutic method called NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) by modeling the three best therapists of the seventies: Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson. Frogs into Princes is a transcript of a workshop Bandler and Grinder taught together and it’s difficult to tell sometimes who is speaking. It doesn’t really matter, since at that time they spoke with one voice:

The last time that I went to see Milton Erickson, he said something to me. And as I was sitting there in front of him, it didn’t make sense. Most of his covert metaphors have made… eons of sense to me. But he said something to me which would have taken me a while to figure out. Milton said to me “You don’t consider yourself a therapist, but you are a therapist.” And I said “Well, not really.” He said “Well, let’s pretend … that you’re a therapist who works with people. The most important thing …. when you’re pretending this … is to understand … that you are really not…. You are just pretending…. And if you pretend really well, the people that you work with will pretend to make changes. And they will forget that they are pretending … for the rest of their lives. But don’t you be fooled by it.” And then he looked at me and he said:

“Goodbye.”

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Monday 29 April 2002

Unbelievable

I am not an accomplished cook. I’ve been told often enough — mostly by girlfriends — that I cook as though I’m conducting a chemistry experiment. I suppose it could look like that. What with majoring in chemistry at university and then becoming a photographer, much of my life I’ve been carefully measuring and mixing chemicals.

Those habits must have followed me into the kitchen. I never stray from the recipe: measuring quantities accurately, setting the oven temperature precisely, timing each dish to the minute. By eschewing flair or imagination, applying scientific methods, and restricting myself to a repertoire of three dishes, I can make a meal for two or four people with little fuss and no risk of failure.

I always ask potential guests whether they’ve eaten at my place before and, if so, what did they have: grilled Atlantic salmon with asparagus and new potatoes; chicken cacciatore with steamed corn, carrots, and broccoli; or veal campagnola with a green salad? For newcomers, I like to serve the chicken cacciatore. It seems more ambitious and can be prepared ahead of time, leaving just the vegetables to steam.

So that’s what I cooked for Ayako, the first time she came to dinner. The aromas of garlic, basil, and tomato filled the apartment. Chopped anchovies, olives, and parsley lay in piles on a large white plate. Ayako stood in the doorway of the tiny galley kitchen, holding a glass of white wine, watching me slice carrots and broccoli.

The lid of the saucepan clattered gently. I lifted it, poked at the corn with a fork then — relaxing for a moment — took a sip of beer.
“You should put the broccoli in now,” she told me.
“No,” I replied. “The carrots go in next, for eight minutes, then the broccoli for two.”
Shinjirarenai,” she exclaimed, laughing.
I’d only recently started studying Japanese again and didn’t know the meaning of shinjirarenai.
“Unbelievable,” she said. “A man who knows how to cook broccoli.”

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Wife

We’d ventured west, combining a picnic in the mountains with a visit to see H’s new baby at the hospital. Now — after presenting the flowers, admiring the baby, and mixing uneasily with the relatives — we were filling up with petrol for the 35 mile trip home.

Shrieks and yells pulled my attention from the spinning numerals on the bowser to a gaggle of teenagers at the next line of pumps. Tattoos, shaven skulls, bovver boots. We were deep in skinhead country. I felt uneasy, and ashamed of my unease.

The noise evaporated as they scrambled back into their Chrysler. A hard boy — older than the others — strode out of the 7-Eleven. Short and stockily built, he wore a dark green T-shirt with SPIT in huge white letters across the chest. Looking at Natsuko’s old Volvo (and me) with loathing, he slid into the driver’s seat, slammed the door, flicked the ignition, and revved the V-8.

I ran through a checklist of possibilities, from bundling Natsuko into the 7-Eleven to locking ourselves in the car to fleeing without paying for the petrol. Still, I consoled myself, it’s broad daylight. There are three other cars filling up. They won’t try anything here.

As though he’d read my mind, SPIT-man threw the car into gear and careered out onto the main road. I relaxed and tried to cast off my shame.

But, rather than diminishing, the roar of the Chrysler’s engine increased in intensity as the car zoomed back alongside.

Two brutal young faces crowded the rear passenger window.

“Why don’t you and your wife get back to Asia where you belong?” one of them yelled.

“Fucking Asian cunt,” screeched his offsider. And just as suddenly they were gone.

It was my first encounter with racism, or rather, my first time I’d been subjected to racist taunts. I felt embarrassed for Natsuko and — perversely — wanted to apologize for my countrymen’s behavior. But, her face flushed with excitement, she interrupted before I’d uttered a word:

“Did you hear what they said? They thought I was your wife.”

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Saturday 04 May 2002

Saturday afternoon at the Aquarium

Shark, Sydney Aquarium, 5 May 02

Every other month I spend an afternoon and evening with Herman & Fiona and their two boys, John and James. This afternoon we took a trip to Darling Harbor where we ate lunch, visited the Sydney Aquarium, and rode a complete loop on the monorail.

This evening we ate dinner at New Wok in Town. The restaurant is owned by two brothers (Charles and William) and their wives (Phoebe and Amy). Charles handles the front-of-house, William manages the kitchen, and Phoebe and Amy wait tables a few shifts a week.

Fiona is expecting a baby in August and Amy told her it will be a girl—because of the shape of her tummy and the fact that the baby is sitting low. Come August we’ll be able to gauge the accuracy of traditional Chinese obstetrics.

And, if you’re visiting Sydney, the Aquarium is well worth a visit. Particularly the sharks.

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Thursday 16 May 2002

The Waiting Years

Eleventh century written Japanese is so different from modern Japanese that a novel like The Tale of Genji must be translated for contemporary Japanese readers, as if into a foreign language. In the twentieth century this task was undertaken by the poetess Yosano Akiko and the novelists Tanizaki Junichiro and Enchi Fumiko.

As I become more deeply immersed in my project of reading the three English translations of Genji, I’m taking various side trips by reading Genji-related books such as Edward Seidensticker’s Genji Days and Enchi Fumiko’s A Tale of False Fortunes. The latter brought back memories of discovering Japanese literature.

A long time ago I realized that it would be years before I could achieve my dream of experiencing Japanese novels in Japanese; so I resolved to read whatever was available in English translation and—having purchased J. Thomas Rimer’s A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature—began to work my way systematically through the authors he suggested, reading anything I could find by Ogai, Soseki, Kafu, Shiga, Tanizaki, Ibuse, Kawabata, Inoue, Dazai, Endo, Mishima, Ariyoshi, and Oé, all the acknowledged masters of modern Japanese literature. And, with the exception of Ariyoshi Sawako, all men.

I would not understand until years later that, consciously or not, Rimer was following a long tradition in Japanese literary criticism which—using terms such as “joryu sakka” (woman writer) and “joryu bungaku” (women’s literature)—places most women writers in a separate (and implicitly inferior) category.

Book cover: Enchi Fumiko, The Waiting YearsI must have picked up Enchi Fumiko’s Onnazaka whilst searching for a rare title by the one of writers on Rimer’s list. After reading just a few pages I was at a loss to understand how or why he had excluded her. (She finally rates a mention, along with Kono Taeko, Hayashi Fumiko, and Uno Chiyo, in a later edition of Rimer’s book.)

To be sure, condensing modern Japanese literature into a list of twenty classical and thirty modern works is a close-to-impossible task but I could have easily nominated three or four books that Enchi’s novel deserved to displace.

Set in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Onnazaka was published in installments between 1952 and 1957 and translated by John Bester in 1971 as The Waiting Years. Onnazaka does not mean “the waiting years.” It’s a made-up word, constructed from the characters for “woman” and “hill” or “slope.” It conjures up an image of a woman struggling up an endless incline.

In the novel’s opening scene, Tomo, comes to Tokyo from the north of Japan to find the first of the concubines she will, during the course of her married life, be forced to procure for her husband Shirakawa, a wealthy bureaucrat.

“Should she refuse to accept the task it was almost certain that her husband would simply introduce into the family a woman chosen without consulting her. His leaving the choice to her was a sign of his trust, of the importance he attached, for the family’s sake, to her position.”

Such is Tomo’s devotion to her husband and his ie, or household, that she conceals her resentment of both her husband’s cruel infidelities and the patriarchal family system which makes her an accomplice in the exploitation of other women.

Enchi FumikoBased on stories told to Enchi Fumiko by her grandmother, The Waiting Years is an extraordinary book: beautifully written, filled with wisdom and compassion, sad beyond belief in its careful delineation of Tomo’s repressed emotions.

The year after the English version was published, Enchi Fumiko commenced work on her translation of The Tale of Genji.

As it happened, my former girlfriend Natsuko was reading Enchi Fumiko’s Genji when we first started seeing each other. She’d had to study the novel in high school, much as Western children have to read Shakespeare, and her schoolgirl memory was that it was etchi (lewd or obscene).

We used to sleep late on Sunday mornings: making love, eating breakfast in bed, and reading books or newspapers.

“I must have been so naïve then,” Natsuko said one such morning, balancing Genji on her knees as she tore off a piece of croissant and dipped it in her coffee. “To think Genji was etchi just because it’s about a man who has lots of affairs.”

I thought about Hikaru Genji, the Shining Prince, with his many wives and mistresses; and about Tomo’s husband Shirakawa in The Waiting Years.

A few weeks later in the Kinokuniya bookstore, I found a copy of Onnazaka in the Women’s Literature section and bought it for Natsuko. On the train home I slowly turned the pages and scanned up and down the columns of characters, occasionally encountering a kanji I could understand, wishing with all my heart that I could read Japanese properly, that I could connect directly with Enchi Fumiko’s prose.

Natsuko loved getting presents and she responded as she always did: by wrapping her arms around me and whispering a thank-you in my ear. But the book sat on the shelf for months until one Sunday she plucked it off the shelf on her way back to bed with our coffee.

She finished Onnazaka within a matter of days and when I asked her how she’d liked it, she simply said it was omoshiroi, an adjective that like its English equivalent—interesting—can mean almost anything at all.

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Monday 24 June 2002

Mizu shobai

mizu-shobai the bar and entertainment business

Kodansha Furigana Japanese English Dictionary

mizu-shobai, water trade
the vulgar term for any precarious form of trade yielding an income entirely dependent on the patronage of its customers; for example entertainment provided by geisha, bars, cabarets, and so on

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade

Pub Blue Moon

“What’s mizu shobai mean,” I asked Ayako. We were eating breakfast.

“There’s no such thing,” she flatly replied, without looking up from her newspaper.

Twenty minutes later she folded the newspaper, pushing it to one side. She moistened the tip of her middle finger and began to collect the crumbs on her plate, one-by-one.

“Where did you hear about this mizu shobai?” she asked, as she daintily retrieved each crumb with her tongue—yet another provocative gesture from her seemingly inexhaustible repertoire.

“I read it in a book.”

“Which book?” I loved the way she pronounced it, saying ‘buke’ as in Luke.

“A textbook,” I fibbed, certain this would annoy her. A former high-school teacher, she regarded textbooks as inarguable sources of fact.

In a way though, I was telling the truth. Though John David Morley’s Pictures from the Water Trade, is a kind of shi-shosetsu, a lightly-fictionalized account of the author’s several years in Japan, at a crucial point it had functioned as a textbook, my only reliable reference to the enigma of Japanese behavior.

Unless I’d discovered and diligently read Morley’s book I would never have been eating croissants with Ayako on a Sunday morning, arguing about the existence of the mizu-shobai, the water trade.

Ayako had been evasive, the first time I invited her on a date—to see Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-ga the following Sunday afternoon. She asked if she could call me on Sunday morning, that it would take her until then to decide.

She did call back and we saw the movie, which made her laugh and cry. We went on to dinner, chatting so easily and happily together that when I dropped her off in front of her apartment building, I was already falling in love.

I asked her if she wanted to do it again and she said: “Mmm, sometimes.” She gathered up her coat and bag, climbed out of the car, and stood stock still as I drove away. All the way home I tried to decipher what had passed between us in those last moments.

She called me frequently on the phone after that yet it was always the same. Ayako would imply an interest in seeing me again—perhaps another Japanese film?—but the moment I tried to pin her down she would retreat in a flurry of vague apologies.

Our stop-start relationship seemed to have permanently stalled. Around then, fortuitously, I bought Pictures from the Water Trade. The answer to my difficulties was on page 69.

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade (book cover)“The framing of questions in Japanese was an art, an instrument to be handled with great delicacy and care. A direct question at an untimely moment could prove very destructive, merely by virtue of its directness. Direct questions (with obvious exceptions in professional, business life and so on) were not much liked. The typical question was really a feed line, what in a court of law would be disqualified as suggestive, full of loop-holes, offering escape-hatches, and in fact as unlike a question as it was possible to be. The person who had been asked the question could thus be indicted on no more serious charge than of aiding and abetting the person who had asked the question; an accessory to the answer, as it were, not the principal malefactor. He had merely conspired to answer.”

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade

Suddenly it all became easy. She’d call, I’d make a nebulous remark about reading a restaurant review in the newspaper or mention in passing that a friend had enjoyed such-and-such a movie and, almost magically, Ayako and I would be seated at the counter eating sushi or standing in line to buy tickets to the film.

I put Morley into practice with a diffident vengeance: shying away from any attempt at precision; using qualifiers like “perhaps,” “maybe,” or “apparently;” omitting the subject of a sentence, or the verb; speaking, in effect, a kind of ethereal English that mimicked the oblique, tentative quality of spoken Japanese.

And the wonderful paradox was that the vaguer my speech, the more definite Ayako’s affections became.

Months later I asked her if she’d noticed what had happened.

“Of course,” she replied. I asked her what she thought about it at the time.

She said with a smile: “I liked it very much.”

So Ayako’s statement that there was no such thing as the mizu shobai—when both of us knew perfectly well there was—was meant to draw my attention to some inarguable facts: that I needed to learn that “direct questions were not much liked;” that her o-jo-sama upbringing had kept her well clear of the water trade; and that—by extension—she had no desire to associate with a man who felt at home in its relaxed, squishy world.

But most of all she was reminding me that I wasn’t Japanese.

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Wednesday 26 June 2002

Mars and Venus

Insane Single Chick writes to Salon’s Cary Tennis:

I’m smart, outgoing and attractive enough that men would consider sleeping with and also dating me. I’ve had boyfriends, one-night stands, flings, love affairs, seductions, dates, etc. … but maybe John Gray is right — am I intimidating the commitment power right out of men?

I am an intensely creative and emotional person. I consider myself an individual and though I seek a companion, I don’t necessarily see myself starting a family, nor do I think women need to in order to find fulfillment. But is it true that I can “just be myself” and still find someone?

I do want to meet someone who’s attractive, successful, intelligent, and very interested in growing, experiencing and changing. Am I being unreasonable?

Conversation #755 from the IRC Quote Database:

<saboteur> sometimes i wish i didtn have a penis
<saboteur> like when i get a wood standing up
<Damien> lol sab
<saboteur> and its hard to hide
<phase5> same
<phase5> or like, when your walking down the street
<phase5> and it hangs out the bottom of your pants
<phase5> and drags on the ground
<saboteur> haha
<saboteur> yeah exactly
<k> or when you lie down and planes crash into it

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Saturday 29 June 2002

I don’t wanna be a partner

Steve Himmer wrote:

I said to Sage recently, ‘We gotta get us one o’them babies I’ve been hearing so much about.’ To which she said, ‘Uh, no.’ She’s very wise, that Sage (she’s also right over here; go tell her to update more often), and it’s a good thing too: as much as I love being Uncle Cheese, I may not be quite ready to become Uncle Dad.

I followed the link to Sage Brousseau’s site and, although Steve’s recommendation is hardly objective, he’s absolutely correct: she should update more often, and not just the blog but the photo portfolio too. Sage points to one of Steve’s posts, saying:

i could write about it myself…
… but i don’t have to. the wonder that is my neighborhood, as described by my boyfriend.

When I read this I thought, how delightful. Down here in Australia, the forces of political correctness are working overtime to stamp out the terms “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “fiancé,” “fiancée,” “wife,” and “husband,” replacing these lovely words with the charmless, enervated “partner.” As in:

I’d like to introduce you to my partner.
My partner and I are going away on holiday.
You and your partner are invited to…

Partner. Say goodbye to romance, intimacy, commitment. You might as well be occupying adjacent offices in an accounting firm. Although there isn’t a great deal to be said for being single, at least I can be certain that no-one’s going to ask about my partner.

So what a pleasure to find a woman who has a boyfriend (who, in turn, refers to himself as such in a comment on one of her posts). Long may boyfriends and girlfriends live and love.

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Monday 01 July 2002

Transience

Michael Barrish, Bookmark:

Strangely, though perhaps not that strangely, I saw this coming. I mean when we were together. We would be fucking or… well it didn’t have be sex, just a moment of closeness, of feeling connected and happy… and I would recognize that moment, the preciousness of it, and tell myself to remember it, to memorize the feeling of it, because even as it was happening it was slipping away.

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Thursday 04 July 2002

Visiting Ozu’s grave

On an overcast Friday afternoon, Natsuko’s aunt’s ashes were buried at the temple, ten minutes from the family home. After another formal meal in the temple dining room, similar to the one we’d eaten at the crematorium, Natsuko’s sister drove us quickly through the narrow streets back to the house she shared with her teenage daughter.

We spread our futons out on the living room floor, took off our clothes, and immediately fell asleep. In the past two days we’d slept only five or six hours.

The next morning, Natsuko—knowing I would return home the following day—asked me how I wanted to spend my last day in Japan. More than anything, I told her, I wished to visit Ozu’s grave.

Kita-Kamakura station signI recalled a scene from Tokyo-ga, Wim Wenders’ movie about Ozu: the railway station sign saying Kita-Kamakura, Ozu’s headstone engraved with the character mu

“I think he’s buried at Kita-Kamakura,” I told Natsuko.

“We’ll have to change trains at Ofuna,” she replied.

At Kita-Kamakura no-one knew where Ozu was buried so we walked back to the station to wait twenty minutes for the next train. I wandered out and stood by the level crossing, snapping pictures of people as they waited then crossed over the railway line. As an express clattered past, I thought of the mandatory train scenes in Ozu’s films, particularly the ninety-second sequence in Ochazuke no aji, with Taeko on the train to Nagoya in a futile attempt to escape the invented unhappiness of her marriage. Natsuko sat on a bench at the station, reading a magazine.

Eventually I strolled back and we rode one stop south to Kamakura to ask at the koban, the police box next to the station. Japanese police usually know where everyone and everything is but they had no idea who Ozu was or where he might be buried.

Natsuko suggested we look for books on Ozu in the bookstore across the square but the single book on the shelf mentioned only a memorial service held in Tokyo after his death. There was nothing about his funeral or burial.

Discouraged, we went to a coffee shop. Natsuko ordered strawberry pancakes.

Natsuko's strawberry pancakes

Suddenly, her mouth full of pancake, she said: “There must be a tourist bureau, we should have asked there.”

The young woman at the Visitors Center had never heard of Ozu but she pulled a thick blue binder from the shelf behind, dropped it on the counter with a thud, and slowly flicked through the pages. Sure enough, under “O” there was a brief note: he was buried at Engaku-ji. We bought another set of tickets for the ride back to Kita-Kamakura.

Engaku-ji was just a few minutes walk from the station. The old attendant to whom we paid our entry fee spoke rapidly to Natsuko, pointing to a steep slope above the carpark. I thought I caught the word “mu.”

“He says Ozu’s buried up there, we should look for a black marble headstone with the character ‘mu.’”

We walked across the carpark, climbed to the top of a set of worn stone stairs, and looked around the jumbled profusion of Japanese graves. Instinctively—was it my memory of Wim Wenders’ film?—I headed off to the right and there it was. Ozu’s grave.

We’d come in late April, the end of the cherry season. Damp pink and white petals lay scattered around the huge marble cube. I could just make out the character “mu.”

Ozu's grave at Engaku-jiI took some photographs. Natsuko did the same. Then we stood before the grave and bowed our heads to pray.

I looked back through my life, remembering Ozu’s films, when and where I’d seen them, who I’d been with at the time… most of all I thought of all he’d taught me about the inextricable link between beauty and sadness, about mono no aware.

It had been years since I’d prayed: like Ozu, I believed primarily in nothingness. But I recalled Murasaki Shikibu’s visit to Ishiyamadera, the temple on the edge of Lake Biwa, where she is supposed to have prayed for and received inspiration to write The Tale of Genji. I asked Ozu to guide me as I attempted to write my own book.

The sound of two sharp claps shattered my reverie. Natsuko had finished her prayers in the Japanese style.

“Ozu-san ni inotta no?” she asked me. “Did you pray to Ozu?”

“Inotta yo,” I replied. “Yes I did.”

“Eigo de? Nihongo de?” In English or Japanese?

“In English,” I told her, “it was too complicated for my Japanese.”

“Well, you know, Ozu didn’t speak English,” Natsuko said tartly. “He wouldn’t have understood your prayer.”

“The gods would have translated for him,” I told her as I walked towards the stairs, trying to recall the face of a woman I’d photographed crossing the railway tracks, a woman I would never see again.

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Thursday 11 July 2002

Donald Richie’s visit

In the mid-eighties I stopped attending the Sydney Film Festival. The films had become increasingly earnest and didactic but the real reason was this: the audience made me ill. Smug, insular, awash with self-importance, they would cram into the beautiful old State Theater to gorge themselves on documentaries from Senegal and Ulan Bator and the latest piece of posturing from Peter Greenaway.

Years later, at a party, I insulted one of Natsuko’s friends—a Festival devotee—by saying that 80% of Sydney’s social problems could be solved by rigging the theater with plastic explosive one June and burying that audience in a pile of art-deco rubble.

But for two years, 1992 and 1994, I set aside my distaste and bought a Festival ticket. The critic and writer, Donald Richie, had curated two seasons of Japanese films.

Poster for Toyoda Shiro's Marital RelationsIn 1992, he presented ten post-war Japanese films including Yoshimura’s A Ball at the Anjo House, Kinoshita’s Morning for the Osone Family, Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums, and Toyoda’s Marital Relations. Two years later, Richie showed ten Ozu movies including Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, and —of course—Tokyo Story.

Donald Richie would briefly introduce the film then take questions from the audience for fifteen or twenty minutes at the end. These sessions must have been painful for Richie for, despite the de rigeur Festival sensitivity to “other cultures,” most of the questions laid bare a view of Japan and the Japanese that could only have been drawn from the crudest of cultural stereotypes.

Still, he answered each question with warmth and generosity, revealing in his responses a depth of understanding and sympathy for Japanese society that added layer upon layer of meaning onto the film we’d just seen.

It was in one of these sessions that Donald Richie told the story about Ozu’s reaction to Disney’s Fantasia, a story that—because it was grounded in something the audience could understand (an American animated film)—was well received. Another story had that same audience squirming helplessly with discomfort and, in some cases, barely-repressed anger.

In response to a question about Japanese sexual mores, Richie had given the usual standardized response: since Christianity has repeatedly failed to take root in Japan, the Japanese are not moralistic or racked with guilt and shame about sex, which is regarded as just one of many human pleasures… then he suddenly launched into an anecdote about how an American acquaintance, visiting Tokyo, had asked Richie to take him to a Soapland, or brothel.

Richie explained that Japanese bath-and-massage parlors used to be called toruko-buro (or toruko), loan words based on “Turkish bath.” But in 1985, after a campaign by a Turkish diplomat outraged by the implied insult to his country, the Japanese Bath Association held a competition to find a replacement name. The winner was sopurando, Soapland, and so the Turkish Baths closed down and immediately reopened as Soaplands.

To the increasing dismay of the audience—who were beginning to wonder where the distinguished guest was taking them—Richie said that although he’d not been to a Soapland, he felt an obligation to his visitor and had called a Japanese friend to obtain an introduction to an appropriate Soapland in Senzoku.

He and the visitor had probably taken the Yamanote line to Ueno and changed to the Hibiya line for the two-stop ride to Minowa. Five minutes later a cab deposited them at their destination. Richie, determined to give the outing a cultural gloss, had chosen the Senzoku district since, for over three hundred years until 1958, it had been the site of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, the heartland of Japanese prostitution.

Inside the Soapland they discovered their arrival had been eagerly anticipated—perhaps his Japanese friend had mentioned that Richie was an important interpreter of Japanese culture to the West. The visiting American quickly chose a Soap-Lady, the pair disappeared upstairs, and Richie—who’d had no intention of partaking himself—sat down in the waiting room and began to watch TV.

However it soon became apparent that his reluctance was being misconstrued as disappointment or dissatisfaction and so, rather than risk insulting the owner and his staff and causing embarrassment to the friend who’d introduced him, Richie found himself in a large tiled bathroom handing his clothes to an attractive Soap-Lady.

At this point I became aware of a rift in my attention; for some time I had been simultaneously captivated by Richie’s anecdote and intrigued by the audience’s unmistakably hostile response. Even though, apart from mentioning that the Soap-Lady had commented favorably on his tie and that he felt like he’d been placed in the care of an exceptionally competent nurse, Richie refrained from revealing the specifics of his Soapland adventure.

But for the majority of his listeners he had already said far too much. The forced atmosphere seemed to choke off any further questions and soon the audience was filing out, a restrained silence replacing the excited chatter that followed most screenings.

At first I interpreted this incident as evidence of how completely Richie had internalized and adopted Japanese attitudes towards sex; that he’d been unconscious, to some degree at least, of the negativity radiating from the tight-lipped crowd.

But since Richie’s writing—about Japanese film and culture—displays an acute sensitivity to emotional nuance, I couldn’t believe he hadn’t picked up on their antagonism. Perhaps, I told myself, he’d decided there was no easy way to extricate himself and that he’d best press on.

Lately, however, I’ve started to wonder if his answer hadn’t been deliberate, sophisticated, and slyly malicious. I’d like to think he’d summed up his audience quite early in the season and that—following the old screenwriter’s adage of “show, don’t tell”—he’d taken advantage of their cramped moralism to demonstrate that the Japanese really are quite different. It’s just that the Festival crowd were too strait-laced, dogmatic, and stupid to understand.

As for me, I’d never been to a Soapland, but now I could hardly wait.

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Monday 29 July 2002

The birth of pleasure?

Margaret Talbot casts an acerbic eye over Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure:

While I see a lot of four-year-old and five-year-old boys jostling for independence and testing out attitudes, I do not see many who are “separating themselves from their relationships” with the people closest to them. Moreover, some of the signs of intimacy that Gilligan admires in the relationships of young prelapsarian boys and their mothers are actually signs of children’s profound dependence on adults. Gilligan dwells on the observation that little boys (one could say the same of girls) perceive their mothers’ subtle shifts in mood—anger simmering beneath an even tone of voice, and so on—and wishes that men could be more like that. “I am hearing mothers describe their four-and five-year old sons as emotionally present and clued in to them in a way that their husbands are not,” she writes. As a woman named Rachel explains to Gilligan, speaking of her four-year-old, “Nobody pays attention to me like that. Jake is just, like, clued in. It’s like Mom why did you kind of use that angry voice with me?”

But surely small children notice “angry voices” and the like because they are utterly dependent on their mothers and on the emotional weather that the adult world establishes for them. Children are always looking for storm warnings, or for more auspicious signals—Will we go out for ice cream tonight? Are Mom and Dad getting along?—because the vagaries of the adult world are mysterious to them and completely beyond their control. (Indeed, Rachel describes Jake as her “barometer.”) It can be sweet and gratifying when small boys keep a close watch on their mothers’ moods, but it is also a function of the essential powerlessness of the child. Relationships between equals do not generally elicit or require such vigilant monitoring. Gilligan writes admiringly of Rachel’s refusal to shield her toddler from the tension that she was feeling at work because “to do so would have been to betray his love.” But transparency is not the highest duty in relationships with children. There are some things that children do not need to know.

(Link via Arts & Letters Daily)

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Thursday 01 August 2002

A taxing woman

Video cover: Itami Juzo's Marusa no OnnaOn our fourth date, I took Ayako to the movies again, to see Itami Juzo’s Marusa no onna (A Taxing Woman). We’d seen Tokyo-ga, the Wim Wenders tribute movie to Ozu. We’d eaten an expensive sushi dinner. And we’d “gone to bushwalking,” as Ayako phrased it—in an exact transliteration of the Japanese. I thought another movie was called for and a Japanese comedy seemed the perfect choice.

We met just before the six o’clock session at the Valhalla in Glebe, an ancient fleapit not far from Sydney University. Ayako had come straight from the merchant bank where she worked as an analyst. In her elegant gray suit and high heels, she looked immaculate and utterly out of place amongst the scruffy university crowd. Trying to balance formality with comfort, I’d chosen jeans with a jacket and a tie.

Though I’d come of age in the seventies, when sex on the first date was almost a matter of course, by the mid-eighties AIDS had arrived and by the end of the decade we were all more cautious, delaying the first kiss until the second date before tumbling into bed on the third.

But Ayako and I had yet to hold hands and we certainly hadn’t kissed. I couldn’t make up my mind: was she was prudish about sex? or was the decision to sleep together a cross-cultural mystery? Since she was the first Japanese woman I’d dated and I hadn’t yet discovered Pictures from the Water Trade, I’d resolved to take it slowly.

In the opening sequence of A Taxing Woman, a nurse unbuttons her uniform, exposes an enormous breast, and suckles her eighty-year-old patient. Twenty minutes or so into the film, the tax-evading gangster masturbates his mistress to climax while speaking on the telephone to an associate.

I began to think that I was re-enacting the scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which the Robert De Niro character, Travis Bickle, takes straitlaced Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a porno movie on their first date. I was convinced life was about to imitate art, that Ayako would suddenly stand up and walk out, leaving me in the theater. But Ayako sat quite still, intent on watching the movie.

When the gangster’s mistress gets out of bed after sex and walks across the room, there’s something white clenched between the cheeks of her ass.

Marusa no onna (A Taxing Woman)

My God, I thought, it’s a fucking tissue!

Unable to restrain myself I looked to my right, to gauge Ayako’s response. She’d raised her hand to cover her mouth as she always did when she laughed, though her face showed just a trace of a smile. She didn’t turn to meet my gaze.

We didn’t sleep together that night. But the reserve between us evaporated and, coming out of the theater, Ayako took my arm for the first time as we crossed the street to the car.

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Wednesday 07 August 2002

I am VERY INTENSE!

The voice of experience is instantly recognizable. Dorothea Salo resonated with Jeff Ward’s realization that the same intensity that makes him a “natural scholar” also makes him a “natural asshole.” She responded by explaining that she is not an intense person (though she is often mistaken for one). She outlined certain characteristics of the intense personality, most of which I exhibit (though I can’t, of course, speak for Jeff) then offered some practical tips for maintaining a successful relationship between an intense person and his or her non-intense partner. Dorothea concluded her post by answering my rueful question about whether relationships between people with roughly the same “intensity coefficient” will be more successful than those between couples whose intensities are drastically out of balance:

Jonathon, for what it’s worth, I do not think that two high-intensity people should try to make a go of it unless their avocations dovetail nearly precisely. If not, they will grow apart, because neither of them will put in the effort to pull together. Two low-intensity people are likely to be fine.

And a highly intense person can be happy with a not-intense person, and vice versa. As I said, it’s tough, but it’s manageable. I have found the rewards worth it.

This advice matches my own experience in that my relationships with non-intense women have lasted a lot longer than those I’ve had with intense women—although I can lay claim to plenty of unsuccessful relationships with intense and non-intense women alike. But Dorothea’s post did bring to mind a relationship that foundered on the issue of intensity.

It started like this. In late 1994, at the height of the short-lived CD-ROM boom, I was working as a multimedia producer when my boss—sensing the growing importance of the Net—decided to establish a corporate Web site. Responsibility for building the site fell largely on me and H, the programmer with whom I worked most closely.

I’d almost convinced myself that I liked being a producer, but I realize now that deep in my heart I didn’t truly enjoy it. When you’ve spent most your life photographing or writing, supervising other creative people can be a miserable substitute. Heaving a sigh of relief, I poured all my pent-up energy into learning about HTML, GIFs, and JPEGs.

H and I worked like Trojans for a couple of months and, once the site was up and running, decided to add personal pages. H showed me the page he’d designed. It had pictures and descriptions of himself and everything he loved: his wife, their cat, his car.

Me, in Saitama, with my former Japanese teacher's brother-in-law and two niecesWe thought it would be neat if the structure of my page mirrored his. But as I sat down to make my page, I realized I was in trouble: I had a cat but no car, no wife, and—though I’d been a photographer for nearly twenty years—hardly any pictures of myself.

I managed to scrape up a snapshot from the period I lived in Japan. I was visiting the the sister of one of my Japanese teachers and she took this picture of me (in the leather jacket) with her husband and two daughters in front of their apartment block at Saitama in northern Tokyo.

She took lots of other pictures too but I liked this one best. In it I am hardly recognizable.

My cat, PuddingPudding was originally my parent’s cat; she’d belonged to someone a few houses away before she inveigled her way into their lives. My mother, hoping to travel, didn’t want a pet but my father secretly fed Pudding for three months until mum relented. After my father died, my mother continued to care for Pudding, even though, as she confessed to me: “I like her but I don’t love her.”

I’d always been fond of Pudding and so, when I bought a house, she moved in too. Thinking she was the prettiest little cat, I was astonished when a friend looked at her and said: “Mate, you can’t possibly think that’s an attractive cat!” Well, I always thought she was. Sadly, I had to have her put down a couple of days ago, after the cancer for which she’d had surgery nearly a year ago had started to spread. She was an affectionate little cat, and she had a sweet nature. I’m lucky to have had her.

Still life with PowerBookFor H’s car, I decided to substitute my PowerBook, since each catered to our need to tinker with machines.

It’s strange, years later, to look at this artless—and unintentionally revealing—still life: the PowerBook 180 (self-reflexively displaying the Web page under construction) flanked by Genji Monogatari, a stack of CD-ROMs (one about Ozu on top of the pile), a Japanese-English dictionary, magnifier, pen, and mug of coffee.

My life in a stolen moment, to quote the immortal Bob. How little it’s changed.

Miyamoto NobukoNo wife? No problem. I borrowed Itami Juzo’s wife, Miyamoto Nobuko, star of his comedy A Taxing Woman. Why? Because I’ve always been strongly attracted to women who:

  • are intelligent;
  • have a sense of humour;
  • wear glasses (see item one);
  • are Japanese;
  • have red hair and/or freckles.

Miyamoto Nobuko represented my ideal: the kind of woman I wanted to be married to. Perhaps the red in her hair owes a lot to the late afternoon sun but as I asked on the Web page, “Hey, who’s perfect?” I uploaded the files to our server and went back to the story I was writing in my spare time.

Around Easter in 1995, quite out of the blue, I received an e-mail from an old friend who was living and working in Lisbon. She’d somehow stumbled across my Web page and sent a message from a colleague’s computer. I replied on Good Friday and went off to visit some friends who lived on an island north of Sydney.

On my return, there was another e-mail—from the colleague, a Brazilian woman. Her name was Lauana.

Lauana's emailWithin a week we were exchanging e-mail messages of extraordinary intimacy, within a fortnight this virtual relationship had become intensely sexual, and within a month faxes and phone calls were adding fuel to the flames. English was not her native language so she spelt phonetically. In her e-mails I could hear the lovely South American cadence of her voice.

We talked endlessly about moving the relationship into the real world but couldn’t decide where. I suggested Phnom Penh or Vientiane but she, living in Europe, preferred Prague. The time difference meant that our lives were totally out of sync. She would wake me to chat at 3:00am. I would drift back to sleep, wake up and stagger into work, switch on my computer, check my mail, find two or three messages from her, write a quick reply, then try to do my job.

At that time I was reading VOX, the hilarious Nicholson Baker novel about telephone sex. I airmailed a copy to Lauana. She sent me a picture of herself.

Lauana's self-portrait

We drove each other crazy. Minor issues of emphasis or tone in an e-mail led to massive misunderstandings and flurries of conciliatory messages. I longed for the unspoken understanding and emotional restraint that I’d shared with my Japanese girlfriends.

My phone bill skyrocketed. To save on international phone calls, we communicated via IRC. Thank God the company was paying for my Internet access.

I found myself being snappy with H although we had worked together for over two years—often under crushing pressure of deadlines—without a single disagreement. He behaved towards me with more grace and tolerance than I deserved.

My friends, when I talked about the relationship, took it as further (superfluous) evidence of my craziness. Then, one day, out of the blue, a casual acquaintance said: “You’ll never guess what’s happened to me. I’ve fallen in love with someone on the Internet.”

Tell me about it, I thought.

Eventually it blew up in our faces. A virtual relationship was—paradoxically—simply too intense. People told me this wasn’t a real relationship but that’s not how it felt. At the time, it seemed absolutely real. As real as the lilting tone of her voice, as real as the lingerie on her bed.

A year or so later, reading through the hundreds of e-mails we’d sent, I came across one of her first, in which she’d predicted exactly what would happen.

Lauana's original email

For a brief time, we continued exchanging e-mails, though the intimacy was gone. Until one day I mentioned that, although we’d never met, I regarded her as affectionately as any other lover. Lauana immediately wrote to rebuke me.

There’d been no intimacy between us, she said. I didn’t know her smell, nor how she kissed. I’d never “toched” her. In fact, Lauana told me, I hardly knew her at all. She was right of course. I hadn’t loved her. I’d been captivated by a technology that fostered a transient—and ultimately false—sense of intimacy. Perhaps our three month “love affair” had been, at best, a virtual one-night-stand.

The day after I received that final e-mail, I was sitting at my workstation, fussing with a page on the corporate site, when H suddenly looked across at me and said: “It’s nice to have you back.”

“It’s nice to be back,” I replied and we each returned to our screens.

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Tuesday 20 August 2002

The art(?) of loving

Jeneane Sessums wrote:

That problem being that too few of us understand what it means to love. Simply to love and to love simply. At the heart of the matter, too many (for my liking) are missing heart—a passion that transcends the feelings we have for ourselves (our own individuality, needs, and so on) and that transcends even the feeling we have for the other person involved (the recipient of our love).

That “beyond” place is a place where love loves itself—driven by an undeniable instinct to protect and honor itself at all costs…

And AKMA wrote:

The [second] [okay, “the almost-kinda-practice-for-a-second”] honeymoon couple relished their four days on their own, and report to the world that they have only grown more deeply in love than ever. Speaking just for myself, I shall say that my fondness for, adoration of, attraction to, pride for, joy with, respect for, delight in, and passion for Margaret have grown hour by hour for nigh onto twenty-four years now. She’s just flat-out the greatest. Thanks, sweetheart.

While Dorothea Salo recalled “two terrified people arriv[ing] at their newly-rented apartment eight years ago:”

They loved each other, very much. They had been paired since she was a college freshman and he a new-minted grad student. But they had spent the last two years apart (save for a few precious visits) after he left grad school. Would their love survive a tiny apartment (with roaches, yet), her inability to cook, his never having lived on his own?

She picked up the phone book and hunted for restaurants that might serve a couple of vegetarians. (Her vegetarianism was all of two days old.) Her eye lit on a Mediterranean restaurant that, by the address, couldn’t be more than a few blocks away. They set out, holding hands again.

That was the best decision they could possibly have made. The server in the little restaurant welcomed them kindly. Did he see how tired and afraid they were? The food they ordered turned out to be excellent, hummus and falafel and grape-leaf-wrapped rice. Suddenly they thought that perhaps they’d make it after all.

They have gone back to the little Mediterranean restaurant every year on move-in day since then. They’ll go again this year.

Mike Golby described it like this:

What is it to me? Hmm… I’ll have to go Hallmark on you, Frank. Love is like the South African sun, cycling our ancient earth, giving us life, sustaining us through times good and bad and, at night, radiating [like the wave breaking skywards] to the unknown sky. Love is all we have and, contrary to my good parents’ advice, all we need. Like the sun’s light, love is all around us, twenty-four hours a day. The darkness, which we so often take as “something”, is always an absence of light and evil, to me, is always an absence of love.

I wonder whether some people are better equipped to love than others, or simply more skilled at it, or got better lessons in loving (or studied more seriously), or does it just—as the cliché suggests—come down to working at it?

I’ve always believed that becoming good at anything requires:

  • an interest in the subject
  • a certain degree of aptitude
  • one or more “experts” whose behavior one can model
  • a sense of inner confidence (the belief that you can do it)
  • accepting that hardship and sacrifice are part of the cost
  • tenacity (aka passion and commitment)

And, at a very deep level, the process has to be fun—only sheer enjoyment will carry you through the periods where the goal seems unattainable, the activity pointless, the struggle just too hard.

It’s easy to apply these parameters to becoming a champion swimmer, or photographer, or vice-president of marketing. But how about love?

I think I’ve always assumed that having good role models is the critical factor but now I’m not so sure. Plenty of people manage to build lasting relationships on the foundation of a damaged childhood. Or do they?

Is tenacity the essential ingredient? Can one person’s determination keep a relationship afloat? Is it true that some individuals possess an innate ability to love (or an aptitude for loving deeply and sincerely)? What might give one the confidence and resilience to sustain a relationship for (say) 24 years?

I don’t know the answers. I’m good at certain things, but (regrettably) I couldn’t put loving at the top of the list. As much as anything, I’m intrigued that hardly anyone assumes they’ll be able to play golf as well as Tiger Woods, yet most everyone takes it for granted that love is a skill that comes naturally. Even though, as Jeneane pointed out, “too few of us understand what it means.”

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Tuesday 27 August 2002

Doc Searls, American Porn, & a suddenly affectionate cat

Late this afternoon I made a good start on a post about the diverse responses to Doc Searls and the babe blogs. I went out for dinner, making it back just in time to start taping the PBS Frontline documentary American Porn (I did work experience in a porn shop for a couple of months last year, in the course of researching my book).

I lay down on the sofa to catch my breath and watch the first ten minutes of the program before getting back to writing. But Reimi-chan appeared beside me and—for the first time since I brought her home—jumped up on my chest and settled down on my stomach to watch TV. This was the moment I’d been waiting (and hoping for). She’s been skittish and reluctant to be picked up. Then, last night, she walked along the top of the sofa, leaned down, and licked my face. Still, I didn’t expect her to want to sit on me so soon and I sure as hell didn’t want to disturb her.

Now it’s late and my spirited defence of Doc Searls must wait until tomorrow.

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Wednesday 28 August 2002

Misunderstandings

Doc Searls wrote:

Oh: when you get tired of all the male kinda shit that seems to comprise 5/4 of the blog world (techblog or warblog… now there’s a sexy selection), wander on over to the smartest babeblogs on the Web: Dawn and Moxie.

Burningbird responded:

I know that Doc couldn’t possibly mean to come across so absolutely, completely, and without any excuse sexist. I had to check the calendar to see if, somehow, all of weblogging was magically transported back in time to the 50’s when I read this post.

If Dorothea Salo was “saddened by the uproar surrounding Burningbird’s wrist-slap of Doc Searls over a less than perfectly egalitarian characterization of blogs,” I was astonished that the uproar (in Bb’s comments and at Blogsisters) seemed to take place in a context-free zone.

“Am I the only one,” I asked myself, “who’s aware that Doc is on reasonably close terms with the babebloggers, Dawn Olsen and Madison Slade?”

But when Madison Slade (moxie) tried to defend Doc by commenting:

I’m one of the bloggers involved.
Doc’s comments were not sexist, rather part of an inside joke between the three of us. Dawn and I were quite amused by that post. We love the Doc.

xian put her firmly in her place:

moxie, bb never said the babebloggers comment was sexist. close reading shows that she is mainly objecting to technology (and war/politics) being considered the province of males.

Well, no. Close reading of Burningbird’s actual sentence reveals nothing of the sort. One could equally be left with the impression that it’s the term “babeblog” to which Burningbird objects.

But if we apply the “close reading” not to Burningbird’s post but to her own comments on that post, xian is absolutely correct. The main source of her frustration and annoyance is the assumption that technology (and war/politics) is the province of males. (I don’t think that’s what Doc meant, but it’s the inference that’s been drawn.)

And Burningbird did imply the babebloggers reference was sexist, in a comment at Blogsisters:

Bluntly, in the right context, I don’t mind babe, particularly when it’s used as an affectionate term of endearment. But I do not like it out of the context. I think it is offensive.

If it’s only offensive when lifted out of context, then—in the context of Doc’s relationship with Dawn Olsen and Madison Slade—it’s not offensive at all, since it’s quite clearly being used as an affectionate term of endearment. How do I know? Because I’ve been following the Dawn/Madison/Doc saga since Doc’s LA Party Report six weeks ago, in which he described his first encounter with the Los Angeles blogging scene. And because a comment by Dawn Olsen on one of Doc’s posts suggests the feeling is reciprocal:

Doc, not sure how this thing works - but here goes. You are the sexiest and sweetest tech blogger ever. You transcend geekdom and are an icon. Thanks for all your kind endorsements. Moxie and I love you!!! Mrs. Searls is one lucky lady!!!

Why does this matter? Because I don’t care for the way Doc’s remark has been taken out of context without any regard for its intent. Because I think it’s unfortunate that a lighthearted and inconsequential observation has been used to pillory someone who is kind and supportive and decent. Because I sense that what’s happened to Doc could just as easily happen to me (or any other guy).

Let me make it clear though: I don’t think that was Burningbird’s purpose at all. In a number of subsequent comments, she made it clear that she holds Doc in high regard. Dorothea Salo nailed it when she wrote:

To my mind, Bb did everything right. She didn’t ignore something she didn’t approve of. She didn’t fulminate, she didn’t proclaim a sudden dislike for Doc, she didn’t generalize from one message to all of Doc’s output, she didn’t generalize from (a putatively sexist) Doc to the rest of the universe. She used humor, not anger, to get her message across.

And all her message really contained was, “Ow. Doc, that hurt.”

But, out of Bb’s post, came the furor that Dorothea found astounding:

Most of it (some of it in BB’s comments, some on Blogsisters) fell into precisely the errors that Bb herself did not commit. Demonizing Doc over a single message. Demonizing men over a single message from Doc. Demonizing Bb for caring, often accusing her of rhetorical violence she didn’t get anywhere near.

It’s this doctrinaire, reductionist, Pharisaical mindset that I abhor—this insistence on enforcing the letter of the law while utterly ignoring its spirit. I decided years ago that words count for little compared to actions, that how someone behaves over time provides an infinitely more accurate guide to their character than a throwaway remark.

In Blogaria, unfortunately, words are actions. Or, as Deb Gussman pointed out in Bb’s comments, “one of the problems with writing is that the writing’s all you’ve got.” She neatly summed up the key issues:

[Doc is] not the first or last one of us who will say something sexist, or racist, or ageist, or who will make a generalization, or whose irony will be missed. We all do this sometimes b/c we are all part of the same system. For me, a 40 year old feminist, reading Bb’s post was helpful—a confirmation that I’m not alone in responding to language the way I do. Some of you responded differently. I don’t think the dialogue here has to be reduced to political correctness. What’s exhausting (to me) is feeling unheard, or misunderstood, or feeling unable to say what I mean with precision and clarity. Still, I think this conversation is valuable. I think it confirms that human beings respond to language in vastly different ways, that we experience reality differently, that we can’t always control the way other people understand what we write, or say, or believe, and that it’s good to be able to keep talking.

That’s it in a nutshell: “We can’t always control the way other people understand what we write, or say, or believe.” Doc Searls couldn’t control it and nor could Burningbird.

But it’s possible to write in a way that encourages people to keep talking and that’s something that Burningbird achieves with enviable consistency. Burningbird is such a gifted blogger. She writes with confidence and clarity about a startling array of topics: technology, nature, politics, books, traveling … with each post reflecting her passion and commitment for the subject at hand and the world at large. Moreover, she switches styles fluidly, writing precisely, poetically, or passionately as the subject demands.

Her posts attract comments like bees to pollen; for the most part, those comments are good-natured and insightful, occasionally they are boorish or aggressive. Either way, Burningbird is a warm and gracious hostess and her attitude encourages visitors to return. Even if she makes an occasional error in judgement—as I believe she did about Doc Searls—she does it in a way that opens up the conversation, both in the comments people leave and in the posts other bloggers write in reply.

Seen in that light, Burningbird’s irritation with Doc’s remark is understandable. Burningbird is one of the few bloggers who can switch effortlessly from technology to politics to war and back. She’s clearly on top of the technical issues and she can slug it out with the politico/warbloggers too. If I were in her situation, it would drive me batty to be informed that technology and war/politics are the province of males.

Is that what Doc wrote? I don’t think so. I rather think he was lampooning single issue blogs and saying: “If you want something different, these two smart, sassy women write engagingly and well.” In other words, he was directing some flow to two female bloggers he likes and respects. And he gets chastised for being sexist.

And, on the other side, Burningbird runs rings around the tech/war/politico-bloggers again and again, only to see them lose interest and go back to pissing in each other’s pockets. “What the fuck am I supposed to do?” she must think to herself. “Make myself feel better by reading a Salon story about how women film directors have it tough too?”

In other words, there are no winners here. Doc is denigrated, Burningbird feels demeaned. He might have phrased it a little better, she might have looked more closely at the context and his intent.

Jeneane Sessums gets it right:

Shelley, I don’t think Doc has a sexist bone in his body—and I know that’s not what you’re saying—you’re asking if his words were sexist as they were aligned in his sentence.

Don’t spank him for that. Spank the assholes whose hearts are filled with darkness and hate.

Because there’s little to be gained in criticizing those few men who are—deep in their hearts—your allies (no matter what throwaway remarks they might occasionally make).

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Thursday 05 September 2002

The problem of men’s magazines

Dorothea included an anecdote in her answer to my emailed question about the sickening grunch:

The GM’s girlfriend (while I’m reminiscing) once had to call the GM and the “fuckable” chap to task pretty sharply for passing a porn mag back and forth during the game. She was right; they were wrong. Even had the mag not been a porn mag, had the situation been free of all gender issues, RPG etiquette says it’s just rude not to pay attention to the game, especially if you’re GM. Even though she was right, and the “fuckable” chap put the mag away, the confrontation still felt uncomfortable. I didn’t have her courage; I would have let it go, and I am ashamed to say that I didn’t even back her up.

Only an insensitive boor would fail to understand that the GM and Mr Fuckable were doubly at fault: for not paying attention to the game and for looking at a porn magazine in mixed company.

I’m anticipating that some—not necessarily Dorothea, though I can’t be sure—would say that porn magazines are unacceptable in any company. That’s the nominal subject of this post.

[I’ll note in passing that I saw nothing accidental in the GM’s involvement in the “fuckable” conversation, his insistence that Dorothea’s game character be “comely,” and his interest in the porn mag at the expense of his responsibilities in supervising the game. In each case his behavior was clearly a form of masked aggression towards someone who profoundly threatened him.]

Anyway, Dorothea’s anecdote reminded me of an event at the barber shop, so on my way home tonight I dropped in for a haircut and asked Nick, the barber, if I could borrow “the letter.”

Anonymous letter to barbershop asking for the replacement of "sexist" magazinesFri 2/6/2000
Dear Hairdressers,
A request…
(But first, thank you for your fine service!)
Could you display a selection of reading materials in addition to (or preferably as a replacement to) the current magazines on offer.
These magazines are an offence to those who wish to avoid material which projects women as sex objects.
Alternatives would be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely,
A customer

Nick first showed me this letter a couple of years ago. I came into the shop one day to find him putting the finishing touches on a young woman’s haircut. She paid, walked out, and I took her place in the chair. I asked Nick whether many women had their hair cut by a barber rather than a women’s hairdresser. He said it was probably more common in Newtown (a trendy restaurant/shopping district, where he has his shop and I live) than other areas of Sydney. He estimated that on average he did one female haircut a day. Then he put his clippers on the bench, rummaged around in a drawer, and pulled out a folded piece of notepaper.

“Have a look at this,” he said to me, “someone pushed it under the door a few months ago. It was on the floor when I opened up one morning.”

I read the letter and asked him whom he thought had written it.

“One of the female customers,” he replied without hesitation. “Either that or a woman who’s been sitting in the shop waiting for her husband or boyfriend while his hair was being cut. It worried me for a while but I asked a few of my regulars and they all told me the magazines are great.”

The magazines are exactly what you’d expect to find in an Australian barbershop: Inside Sport, FHM, and Ralph.

Three Australian men's magazine covers: Inside Sport, FHM, & Ralph

“What do you think about the magazines,” Nick asked me. It was clear he valued my opinion.

“I think they’re perfectly fine,” I replied.

Far more fascinating, for me, than the letter was Nick’s assumption that a woman had written it. What do you think? I asked the other men in the shop: Tony (the other barber), the customer in Tony’s chair, and the two waiting customers, each of whom was reading a magazine. Everyone agreed that the letter could only have been written by a woman, probably one with a chip on her (feminist) shoulder.

Disbelief followed by derision met my suggestion that, in an area like Newtown—so close to Sydney University—there would be plenty of sensitive new age guys who might object to girly magazines. It was taken as given that looking at pictures of nearly-naked young women while waiting one’s turn at the barber is an inseparable component of the men’s haircutting experience—along with the tang of bay rum and the stroke of the razor on the nape of your neck.

“If she doesn’t like the men’s magazines, she should go to a women’s salon,” Tony said vehemently.

I found it difficult to disagree. If we assume a woman did write the letter (though I’m by no means convinced that this is so), then it seems unreasonable that she would take advantage of the lower cost of a haircut at Nick’s—US$6 compared to US$19+ at a ladies’ salon—and then complain about the reading material, which is provided specifically for the male clientele. Though perhaps my powers of reasoning were warped during my teenage years when the highlight of a monthly haircut was the chance to ogle the “artistic nudes” and swimsuit models in Pix, People, and Man magazines.

Cover of DNA, a gay magazineBut let’s return to the letter, whose author objects to the magazines because they “project women as sex objects.” And, although he or she expresses a desire that the girly mags be augmented by non-sexist magazines (“in addition to” and “alternatives”), surely the real project is to have the magazines replaced entirely—the implication being that the world would be a better place and relations between men and women greatly improved if men were given no opportunity to objectify women on the basis of their sexual appearance.

Although if our imaginary female letter writer was to have her hair cut at a women’s salon, she’d find no shortage of women’s magazines that “project women as sex objects.” And I guess I’m curious about her opinion of gay magazines that project men as sex objects. Should these be eliminated too?

Dorothea wrote:

Me, I want physical attractiveness completely off the table, and have all along.

I want to be ugly and not have it matter.

That’s what I want. Permission to be plain, even in my own eyes.

I take it from these unambiguous statements that Dorothea wants her relationships with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—in real life or online—to take place free of any reference to her physical attractiveness, with the parallel desire that we all be more thoughtful, considerate, and aware in our public expression of potentially problematic gender issues. I could be mistaken and, if I am, I can trust Dorothea to set me straight. But nowhere in Dorothea’s posts do I find any attempt to impose what she wants for herself upon other women.

Still, here’s another question. Would it have been acceptable for the GM and Mr Fuckable to pass the porn magazine back and forth if it had been just the two of them, in one or the other’s living room, with no-one else around?

To be fair to our letter writer, his or her objection might only be to the magazines being in a public place (“an offence to those who wish to avoid…”). Perhaps the private consumption of girly magazines is acceptable.

I think it is. I fail to see any contradiction between supporting by my actions every woman’s right to social, political, and economic equality and sitting in a barber shop every few weeks looking at photographs of naked or nearly-naked young women in a magazine.

I accept that other people—men or women—may have ethical, religious, or ideological problems with such photographs and I respect their objections. The simple answer is, though, that they are not obliged to enter the barber shop, pick up the magazines, and read them. If the mere sight of a scantily-clad young woman on a magazine cover causes profound discomfort, I’d point to the multiplicity of more serious injustices that warrant their immediate attention.

On the other hand, I would be offended if I saw Inside Sport, FHM, or Ralph in amongst the magazines in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room. Or in the magazine rack at the local library. Or in the pile of newspapers and magazines in the pickup area at the local pizza shop.

I’m guess I’m saying that it all boils down to context. What might be acceptable in the barber shop isn’t necessarily tolerable elsewhere. Which is why I find myself agreeing with feminist protests about highly sexualized public advertising. But that can be the subject of another post.

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Tuesday 10 September 2002

Crying

Michael Barrish, Oblivio:

My question this morning concerns crying. Is a certain amount of crying necessary to complete the process of mourning, and if so, does the crying need to be spread out over time or can you do it marathon-style?

Spread out over time; in many different places; alone, with friends, and with strangers.

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Tuesday 17 September 2002

Happy families

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Happy Families card game: Mr Bones the Butcher, his wife, son, and daughter

Happy Families is the British version of Go Fish, played with a pack of 44 cards depicting the father, mother, son, and daughter of eleven families (Bun the Baker, Hose the Fireman, Bones the Butcher, Tape the Tailor, and so on). As in Go Fish, the goal is to collect complete families by asking another player for a particular card.

Even at the age of ten, playing the game with my mother and father, the happy family seemed such an absurd notion, completely at odds with the reality of my own family and the families of my schoolfriends, in which happiness was counterbalanced with unspoken grief, frustration, anger, tension, and lies.

Given the enormous amount of social and cultural energy devoted to supporting the charade of the seamlessly happy family, I was hardly surprised to read that Mike Golby had:

received two e-mails from overseas demanding my blog’s closure. The e-mails resulted from my publishing, in haste and unthinkingly, the name of a family member when relating events surrounding my wife’s rape in 1999.

Mike corrected the error and apologized, but apparently the two relatives continue to insist that he stop blogging. In an email to a range of people (presumably on his blogroll), Mike framed a request for comment and support in terms of “freedom of speech.” At the risk of offending Mike and anyone else, I find “freedom of speech” to be almost as exhausted and discredited a term as “patriotism.”

In free societies such as those in which most bloggers live, speech is subject to a range of constraints: the laws dealing with libel, slander, and hate speech; the imperatives of political correctness; and, perhaps most properly, the tact and compassion essential for the smooth running of a community. So, Mike, if you’re looking for support on the basis of “free speech,” I’m afraid I can’t accommodate you.

Because there’s a more important issue at stake for me than “free speech.” Something I might describe as “quality of speech.” Even relatively repressive societies frequently exempt—to varying degrees—artists from many of the restrictions placed on “normal” citizens. In return for a greater degree of intellectual, social, and sexual freedom, artists create works that reflect, criticize, or (most commonly) celebrate the ideologies underpinning the society.

Because the family is regarded as the building block of most societies, a considerable degree of cultural capital is expended in creating artistic works that reinforce and amplify the myth of the happy family. I would characterize most, though not all, of these works as sentimental—using the word in a perjorative sense. But in a comment on my previous post, Loren Webster suggested that “99% of Americans” look favorably on the term:

“Sentimental” has positive connotations, not negative ones. We associate it with things we know are not necessarily true but things we would love to believe.

Things like Santa Claus, things like joyous Thanksgiving reunions with loved ones, even if we only love them at a distance, are considered “sentimental.” Even when we consciously know these things are not entirely true, we would like to believe them and see nothing wrong in believing in them.

I was astonished when I first read Loren’s comment but, on reflection, why should I be? The evidence for Loren’s assertion is in my face every time I turn on commercial television. It’s only a minority who wants to see, in Brecht’s phrase, how things really are.

My guess is that, for Mike Golby’s relatives, the real transgression was not that he named a family member but that his weblog is, among many other admirable things, an uncompromising assault on the myth of the decorous happy family.

Dorothea Salo appears to agree. Responding to Mike’s plea for support and advice, she wrote:

Some people speak about themselves and their families in clichés and polite fictions for many of the same reasons corporations speak in empty, sonorous PR, not least among them desperate fear of the truth. Some people, submerged in the family fictions, lose their real voices in part or wholly…

Blogging threatens such families for the same reasons it threatens PR-dependent corporations. It threatens the fiction, the public façade of perfection, the private walls around anger and pain and disagreement and error.

The “public” nature of blogging is only an excuse, really, for those who want the façades maintained. The same fury arises when a family member obtains private therapy, joins AA or Al-Anon (two organizations heavily invested in the privacy of their members), or even just talks to a friend. Public or private is not the issue; the issue is talking truthfully, or writing truthfully, at all. To anyone.

I myself believe the fictions need to be deconstructed, the façades ripped away from what lies beneath. Talk about things that hurt—this hurts beyond belief. Still needs to be done.

It hurts to write and it hurts to read. Many of Mike’s posts about his wife and family are almost unbearably painful, which is why they are so extraordinary and so valuable. Not that I don’t feel a degree of sympathy for the relatives who’ve been upset by what he’s written. That’s what happens, though, when you have an artist in the family.

There are all kinds of recommended strategies—particularly for writers—by which you can avoid offending family members who’ve been unwillingly or unknowingly coopted into one’s fictions: blend personality traits from three family members into a single character; change the relative’s hair color, give them freckles and a big nose; double their age and change their sex.

None of those strategies work for a confessional artist like Mike Golby. We all get dealt good and bad cards in the great game of life and, sometimes, the artist in the family is one of life’s bad cards. Mike’s relatives are making more of it than that, for reasons Dorothea and I have guessed at. We’ve both chosen to take Mike’s side because we value (in Dorothea’s beautiful phrase) his “eloquent personal transparency” at the expense of their psychic discomfort.

This is why it’s so much more than an issue of free speech. Mostly, when we talk about free speech, we are concerned with a person’s right to express what they believe is the truth, with the emphasis on the content of that expression. In the case of Mike Golby’s weblog, the form of the expression is equally important. Mike’s words, his literary style, and the weblog form itself coalesce into a aesthetic work that is the only necessary proof of his good faith.

Mike talks about it—following David Weinberger—in terms of “writing himself into existence.” But he’s really chasing something far more ambitious: writing a family—happy and unhappy by turns—into existence. And, by extension, writing all of us into existence, surely the function of any serious work of art. You have to pay attention though, to catch the glimpses of intense, authentic happiness, rather like life itself.

I’m not suggesting that happy families are impossible, or even unusual. Rather I’m protesting a pervasive myth based on what Dorothea Salo calls “clichés and polite fictions.” Nor am I saying there’s no room at all for sentimental depictions of the happy family but we live in cultures that—proportionately—offer hardly anything else: not just things that are “not entirely true” but things that are manifestly false. It’s this preponderance of family kitsch that makes a weblog like Mike Golby’s so precious. In Blogaria, most everybody aspires to be a journalist. Artists are distressingly rare.

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Saturday 21 September 2002

Lick this, Candidia

What’s with Candidia Cruickshanks?

It amuses me to read Blog-Doctors of the Body Politic who diagnose but neither cure nor create. They are voyeurs who criticize as clichés the instrumentalities of Power, from whose use they are precluded by their own good taste.

She’s talking about the attack Joe Duemer and I mounted against sentimental kitsch:

Of course Brands, Brand Culture, Patriotism Speeches, are Free Market Kitsch. I am not a cultural elitist. I give my Fellow Consumers what they understand: clichés, CyberSex, Hollywood Epics, and in R/T Wars of Good against Evil. A Metaphysical Brothel for the Emotions? Do you have any idea how profitable Wealth Bondage is? You say my boots are in bad taste. Then why are they covered in spit? Who licks your boots, little men?

I’m surprised that a self-described Social Venture Entrepreneur and Philanthropist is unable to distinguish between theory and practice. I’m amazed Candidia does not recognize that embittered anti-sentimentalists like Joe and myself are ideally qualified to run a high-grossing Wealth Bondage franchise in any major city in the world. I’m flabbergasted that Candidia uses so crass an indicator as spittle-encrusted boots to evaluate one’s prowess as a Teacher, Jester, Moralist, and Disciplinarian.

Stop fantasizing about the Cellular Hydrating Serum, Candidia, and use the spit off your boots. Talk to The Tutor and Minim about giving us a territory. Say, Hanoi or Tokyo… or both. Cut us a deal. We’ll teach you a thing or two about profitability.

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Thursday 10 October 2002

Triple F List

Heather Hamilton via Mark Pilgrim.

My list:

  1. Nancy Brilli
  2. Naomi Nishida
  3. Irene Jacob
  4. Gong Li
  5. Michelle Pfeiffer

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Wednesday 06 November 2002

On gatekeeping

Dorothea Salo mentioned—in the context of sharing responsibility for household tasks— gatekeeping, a habit displayed by “some people, typically women… [who] shut other people out of particular tasks and then complain about lack of help.”

I’m not sure whether this is true of all gatekeepers but I’ve noticed that the exclusion is frequently done on the grounds that the task must be performed in a specific way. A few years ago, I was slicing some lemons in a friend’s kitchen (at his wife’s request). Suddenly, she snatched the knife out of my hand and snapped: “Don’t you even know how to slice a lemon? Don’t worry about it, I’ll do it myself.”

Apart from thinking, “What a graceless, inconsiderate hostess,” I wasn’t too troubled—I don’t have any emotional or intellectual investment in my lemon-slicing technique. As we squeezed lemon juice onto our oysters, however, I did take care to check her lemon slices (mine had been consigned to the wastebin). The problem was that my first slice had been horizontal, through the “waist of the lemon,” as you would if you intended to extract the juice with a hand squeezer. I had then sliced the halves into quarters. Her first slice had been vertical, then she’d sliced each half into three, yielding six slim elegant slices, instead of my chunky four.

Of course, the juice tasted no different. But I realized that whereas I’d taken a functional approach, my friend’s wife was also concerned with how the lemon slices looked. She had conceived the whole dinner party as an aesthetic experience, a kind of theatrical event in which her food and its presentation played the starring roles and her guests were simultaneously the audience and bit players in the drama. I mistakenly assumed I’d been invited for dinner only to find myself co-opted into an elaborate piece of performance art.

To be honest, I prefer simple food and, when I’m eating on my own, cheap restaurants. For me, the fine dining ethos adds a layer of stress to what should be a relaxing occasion, while almost every foodie I’ve encountered has been a pedantic, pretentious bore.

It’s not that I can’t tell the difference between a salad fork, a fish fork, and a dessert fork: to the contrary, I’ve been told on many occasions that I have exquisite table manners. If this is so, it is entirely due to a former employer, a Middle-European countess who drilled me relentlessly in the rules of etiquette. Alas, the lessons did not cover slicing lemons—or anything else—since it would never have occurred to my instructor that I might be called on to assist in preparing the meal.

I wondered briefly why I’d been asked to slice the lemons instead of my friend, but it’s hardly a mystery. The other side of the gatekeeping coin is what one might call calculated incompetence, the strategy by which some people, typically men, botch a simple task so that they won’t be asked to do it again. The classic example is mixing whites and coloreds in the washing or, alternatively, jeans and lingerie. But it works in almost any context: filling the supermarket trolley with expensive deli items and imported beer, ironing synthetic fabrics with the thermostat set to maximum, accidentally dropping a piece of bone china as you’re taking it from the dishwasher.

What a delicious irony, I thought later, that the hostess had consigned me into the same category as her “useless” husband, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. My mother taught me to shop, cook, wash, iron, and sew; accordingly, I’ve never had the slightest trouble taking care of myself. Whenever I’ve lived with a woman, domestic tasks have always been evenly shared though I’m generally happiest if my responsibilities only include cooking a couple of nights a week. I don’t care what anyone says, cooking for two is ten times harder than cooking for oneself.

As for my friend and his wife, I hardly see them anymore. It’s impossible to say which came first: his incompetence or her gatekeeping. Either way, it was exhausting and dispiriting to be around them.

The countess and her (third) husband never argued—yet it wasn’t because they were wealthy and their servants did most of the work. They loved and respected each other and they embraced both the sorrow and the sweetness of living. They were generous with their money, their hospitality, and themselves. The most formal dinner parties were simultaneously spirited and relaxed because the countess took such care in selecting her guests and her husband had the happy knack of putting everyone at ease. The hours I spent in their presence were amongst the happiest of my life.

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Friday 22 November 2002

Moral dilemma

“I want to ask your opinion,” Amy said as she cleared away the plates in the Chinese restaurant tonight. “I’ll bring tea and you tell me.”

Amy has a fourteen-year-old son, Brandon, and a nine-year-old daughter, Brittany. Inexplicably, since I have no children of my own, Amy frequently asks my advice about child-rearing. (I’d love to offer some advice about choosing Chinese names for Chinese-Australian children but I’m too polite.)

She poured the tea for me and continued: “Brittany’s friend, Kelly, stopped going to church six months ago. Last week Kelly asked Brittany if she’d vote for her to be class prefect. What do you think she said?”

I had no idea. In February, Amy told me she was disappointed that her daughter had rejected the opportunity to be a prefect herself. “Good for Brittany,” I replied. “You should be proud of her for having a strong enough character to make up her own mind.”

“What did Brittany tell her friend?” I asked.

“She told Kelly she’ll vote for her if she came to church from now on. What do you think?”

“I’m not sure that was the right thing to do,” I replied. To be honest, I thought Brittany had acted manipulatively—out of a misguided desire to please her parents and the minister of her church. And it seemed out of character, given that she’d had no qualms about disappointing her parents and teacher by rejecting the chance to be a prefect.

Amy was surprised at my response. “I thought she did the right thing,” she told me. “It’s important for Kelly to go to church every Sunday.”

“Maybe,” I replied, “but what’s the use of her going to church if she’s only doing it to become a prefect? God wouldn’t be too happy about that.”

“That’s not true. God would be very happy if Kelly goes to church.”

“Let me put it this way. Going to church is no indicator of good character. Plenty of bad people go to church regularly just as lots of good people never go at all. Brittany should vote for Kelly because she thinks she’ll be a good prefect. Whether or not she goes to church doesn’t matter.”

A group of eight came into the restaurant.

“I have to see to these customer,” Amy said. “We can talk more about this next week.” She hurried away to attend to the group.

As I sat drinking my tea, I recalled my last year in high school, when the senior students had the responsibility of electing the school captain. The popular choice was a boy named Terry Dwyer. He was universally admired: easy-going, academically gifted, a good sportsman, and a natural leader. When he won the election, the headmaster called Terry into his office and told him there was a slight problem. It was widely known that his girlfriend, who attended the local State school, wasn’t a Catholic.

“You’ll have to stop seeing this girl,” said the headmaster, Brother Thomas. “Otherwise I can’t allow you to be school captain.”

Terry Dwyer told the headmaster that he had no interest in being school captain on those terms. Previously admired, he was now venerated as a god. The school heirarchy appointed as captain an arse-licking mediocrity whose father was a generous donor to various fund-raising projects. One of the bright sparks in the Modern History class suggested a nickname for the school captain: Quisling, after the Norwegian Fascist leader who collaborated with the Nazis and led the pro-German government from 1942 until 1945, when he was executed.

I feel sorry for Quisling now, though I felt no sympathy for him when I was seventeen years old. Perhaps having “School Captain” on his resume helped him scramble faster up the ladder, though God knows he paid the price.

And I wonder what lesson Brother Thomas imagined he was teaching, by demanding that a principled young man trade his most important relationship for the shabby honor of being captain of a second-rate Catholic school.

I’ll ask Amy, next week.

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Wednesday 27 November 2002

For a Dancer

Stephanie Kesler wrote (link via Scripting News):

For many of us, our first adult experience with the process of death occurs when one our parents dies.

My first adult experience with death began with a knock on the door around 2am one morning a long time ago. Two policemen gently told me that a close friend, who’d been staying with me until he could find his own apartment, had been killed in a car crash a few hours before. Since his family lived in a remote country town, they asked me to come to the morgue later that day to identify his body. He looked still and white and cold and nothing like the person I had known and loved. I was 22.

I spent the next ten years immersed in death. Another fourteen friends died with startling regularity: motorcycle accidents, cerebral malaria, drowning, hepatitis, suicides, drug overdoses…

Two lovely posts by Loren Webster brought back that grief-stricken period of my life. In each he describes events in his life filtered through a Jackson Browne song.

To Find Out What Is True relates the song For America to Loren’s experiences in Vietnam and America’s lost conscience:

Although I wasn’t one of those who saw the world from “the comfort of a dreamer’s bed,” unless you can call a cot in Vietnam a dreamer’s bed, I, too, joined the army naively believing “in the Motherland.” I found my own “truths” in Vietnam, but America is still “in my blood and my bones,” though I had hoped that we would have learned enough in Vietnam to find new ways of ensuring freedom and justice “for all.”

In About the Size of a Fist Loren Browne’s song In the Shape of a Heart illustrates Loren’s disappointment at the breakdown of his marriage:

Sadly enough, it is possible to live with someone for seventeen years and never know “what she was talking about” and never realize that “she was living without.” Perhaps it’s as simple as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but I suspect that it goes much deeper than that. Beliefs that seemed unimportant when young and in love, suddenly seem insurmountable barriers when raising kids.

When I read Loren’s posts, I remembered the Jackson Browne song that gave me hope in the middle of ten years of death: it was For a Dancer, from the 1974 album Late for the Sky:

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down

I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must’ve always thought you’d be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening

I can’t help feeling stupid standing ‘round
Crying as they ease you down
Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know

For a Dancer is a song about the death of a friend, someone we thought would always be with us, and the necessity of embracing life in the face of death. Browne uses the metaphor of a dance to show how you can carry on after the death of someone you loved dearly, celebrating their existence by integrating all the lessons—from them and from “everyone you’ve ever known,” dead or alive—into a dance that is uniquely yours. Because, ultimately, no matter how deeply we love, we must all of us die alone.

Thinking back, I can’t imagine how I could have maintained my hope and faith without For a Dancer. Jackson Browne’s song taught me to accept the arbitrary burden of death, enabled me to make uncertainty one of the defining characteristics of my life, and encouraged me to believe in love and art as antidotes to the meaninglessness of human existence, trusting that “somewhere between the time I arrived and the time I’ll go, there is a reason I was alive that I’ll never know.”

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Sunday 01 December 2002

Wrong answer? Or wrong question?

Halley Suitt cited an interview with Cybill Shepard in a new magazine for women aged 40 and over, called More. Theorizing about the magazine’s name, Halley wrote:

You may be thinking of Dicken’s Oliver, holding up his begging bowl, “Please sir, may I have some more?” No, that’s not the idea. It’s for women age 40 and over. More. Maybe they have more to offer? Maybe they expect more? You figure it out.

How about: more of the same old women’s magazine bullshit? As exemplified by the breathless promo copy:

More magazine promo copy

Though the interview isn’t available on the Web site, which provides for little more than subscribing online and reading advertisements (sorry, sponsor messages), Halley quotes a couple of snippets that offer a fascinating insight into Ms Shepard’s methodology for winnowing out unsuitable male companions:

They ran a interview with Cybill Shepard that was really something. She’s 53 and looks pretty terrific. They asked her how she screens the new men she meets. “People introduce me. It’s interesting trying to screen your dates over the phone. The first thing I said used to be, “Are you pro-choice?” If they said, “What do you mean by that?” I would say, “You know, I think this is not going to work.”

Then they asked her what she asks men now? “I ask if they’ve ever masturbated in front of someone. Not in the first conversation, though! If they say no, I ask how often they masturbate. If that say, “I’d rather have somebody else do it,” that’s a bad sign … Next!”

Just as ignorance about the pro-choice issue leads to instant disqualification, I think it’s also fair to suggest that you won’t get a passing grade from Ms Shepard by answering the question like this: “No, after a great deal of reading widely, thinking deeply, and discussing the subject with many different people, I have grave reservations about the morality of abortion.”

Now this could be because Ms Shepard feels so strongly about a woman’s right to a safe abortion that she cannot countenance sharing her life with a man who does not hold the same view. Yet one of my closest friends, who has spent nearly twenty happy years with a woman who is vehemently pro-choice, has grave reservations about the morality of abortion.

“If your wife became pregnant and decided to have an abortion would you try to talk her out of it?” I once asked him.

“Of course not,” he replied. “If she went ahead with the abortion, it would cause me deep sadness and distress, which I’d keep to myself.”

This statement came as no surprise since I know that he regards (and loves) his wife as an autonomous being, capable of making her own decisions, rather than as an extension of his own value system.

But I doubt that Ms Shepard’s abortion and masturbation questions are based upon issues of high principle. Rather, I suspect that questions like these are calculated to eliminate anyone who doesn’t subscribe to a fixed set of beliefs. I meet people like this all the time now: after chatting with them for five minutes, I can predict their opinion on almost any issue. Liberal or conservative, it’s as though they purchased their strongly held convictions, neatly packaged, via mail order or from a convenience store.

Surely much of the joy and many of the rewards of any relationship come from having our beliefs challenged, from having the opportunity to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. Otherwise, you’d inevitably find yourself in the situation of Jerry Seinfeld , who—on meeting his “cereal loving, wisecracking, Superman-obsessed counterpart, Jeannie Steinman” (played by Janeane Garofalo)—has a flash of insight:

“Now I know what I’ve been waiting for all these years. I’ve been waiting for me. And now I’ve swept myself off my feet!”

only to realize at the end of the episode:

“I can’t be with someone like me - I hate myself!”

Part of the genius of Seinfeld, his co-stars, and the show’s writers lay in their ability to use comedy as a means of encouraging us to reflect upon the motivation for less than admirable attitudes and behavior.

It is neither here nor there that Cybill Shepard appears not to want a companion who might disagree with her on issues large or small. But her flippant dismissal of someone because of his answer to a single question seems, to me at least, uncomfortably like discounting the worth of an individual on the basis of their race, religion, sexual orientation, physical appearance… or gender.

Later. Lots of feedback in the comments to this post. From where I stand, the most insightful response is a post by Jeneane Sessum, in which she grounds the discussion in terms of love, intimacy, human frailty and desire, fleshing out my argument in human terms. The comment count, when I last checked, stood at a resounding zero. Perhaps the notion of “relationship and emotional intimacy” cuts a little too close to the bone, in a world where enduring relationships can be established on the bedrock of correctly answering a single question.

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Tuesday 03 December 2002

Looking at everything from another’s point of view

I owe Dorothea and Tish an apology. It’s been knocking around in my head for just over a month and Dorothea’s recent post provided the impetus for me to settle down and write. There’s a lot of history in this, that stretches back as far as August (I should have written this earlier, but it took me a long time to figure out what it all meant). If you’re sufficiently interested, the archive for Dorothea’s Grunchy stuff category is a good place to start (she links to all the important contributors). Yesterday she wrote:

I guess I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t feel my contributions to the blogsphere are effective, welcomed, or useful, because of what I have said about sexism. This is in all likelihood a false impression, given the many private emails and some public blogposts with explicit or implicit support, explicit or implicit thanks even, for what I have said and the way I have said it. Moreover, this is a far cry from all I talk about. I checked the sizes on my category files the other day, and the “grunchy stuff” category is near the bottom of the list; only announcements and metablogging are smaller…

I do not say these things in anger, or even in a Burningbirdesque passion, though I have posted in anger in the past, and done rather more harm than good thereby. I say these things in sorrow, in disappointment, in a certain amount of disillusionment. I don’t know why I thought the blogsphere would be any different from a world in which the true stories I have told about myself, and many others I haven’t told, happened. If anything, I ought to have known that a medium priding itself on its expressiveness and openness would bring to light ideas and attitudes I’d rather not face, rather not believe exist—even in people I daresay I’d have no trouble at all liking in real-life encounters, when those attitudes are more or less carefully masked.

No, take that back—I like these people now. I do. I am upset and bewildered that this should be such a barrier, that this self I am constructing is so difficult for other selves to accept. I don’t know how best to handle my own thoughts and feelings, much less those of others concerned.

When I read Dorothea’s post I was surprised. What did she expect? There aren’t too many shrinking violets in the Blogarian population given that weblogging is, crudely, about putting your thoughts and feelings out into a public arena in the hope of inspiring a response. At the level Dorothea is playing the game—which, whether she accepts it or not, is first grade (or the major league, call it what you will)—isn’t it inevitable that you’ll encounter pushback from the opposition? (And that players drift in and out of the opposing team, depending on the issue, so that someone who was on your side last week wants to kick your head in today.)

More to the point, Dorothea isn’t exactly shy about dishing it out on occasion:

I am completely apoplectic that this pompous jerk had the unutterable gall to accuse David and the hard-working WETA people of dishonest and intentional traducing of Tolkien’s work when he either didn’t or couldn’t (honestly, I don’t know which is worse!) read the runes himself. (The Khuzdul Incident)

I could try to explain why NetLibrary’s systems were so messed-up when I saw them, but I’d rather point to my article on conversion houses and remark quietly that NetLibrary when I visited it was the epitome of the stupid, short-sighted, crap-ejecting conversion house. (Why E-Books Cost More)

The OEBF working group that Frumkin sits on is poorly led, has accomplished nothing, and when I left bore no signs that it was going to accomplish anything anytime soon. Poor leadership is the bulk of the problem, but lack of technical expertise also looms large (though Frumkin himself is pretty clued, most of the other WG participants are very not). The expression that comes to mind is “fiddling while Rome burns.” (On Fire!)

(Hmm, you might be thinking, this is a weird apology. Don’t worry, I’m getting to it.)

There’s a difference between Dorothea’s forthright criticism and her upset/bewilderment that the “self [she is] constructing is so difficult for other selves to accept.” The difference is this: Dorothea’s critical remarks are invariably directed at organizations or anonymous individuals (on the rare occasions the criticism is directed at an individual, she apologizes).

Her distress, as I understand it, springs from another place. The key issue—her experience of sexism and her sense of failure in communicating its importance—is entirely personal. And it’s my part in contributing to Dorothea’s frustration that warrants an apology.

It all started with my response to the Doc Searls/Burningbird sexism controversy. What I wrote was overwhelmingly well-received. For example, Tish commented: “This is an eloquent, generous and precise synopsis.” I should have quit while I was ahead.

Instead, I wrote a follow-up post about men’s magazines in the barbershop, ostensibly in response to a post of Dorothea’s about the sickening grunch, but really because I’d been wanting to write about the barbershop for a long, long time. Because I genuinely believe that blogging is a conversation, many of my posts are framed as responses to items I’ve read on other blogs.

The barbershop post was different, because it was written in bad faith. Instead of responding honestly to the substance of Dorothea’s argument, I used her post as an excuse to write about something that interested me, in a manner that was guaranteed to cause her discomfort:

Heck, I’m already starting to feel uncomfortable (not grunched—uncomfortable) with the directions Jonathon is going in; I’m wondering if I’m about to be set up as the Straw Feminist so that arrows can be shot at me.

I’ll save you some time, Jonathon: the arrows will hit, sooner or later.

I don’t have a problem with discomfort. If I thought the purpose of my weblog was to make those who read it feel comfortable I’d stop immediately. “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull,” wrote Kafka in a letter, “why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves.”

But discomforting ideas should be voiced with an honest intent: not out of an immature desire to shock the bourgeois, but because there’s a truth that deserves to be articulated. In essence, I appropriated Dorothea’s issue (the sickening grunch) and her anguish, in order to make a cheap point. “Is it OK then,” I asked disingenuously, “to read girly magazines in the barbershop?”

For that I apologize, in Dorothea’s own words, “humbly and unreservedly. It’s not enough, but I do.”

The barbershop post also offended Tish:

Do I think Doc is sexist? Yes. And in the two places I spoke out about it I was quick to say that I don’t read Doc. There’s no big reason for that. Look at my blog role. I have places I need to be. There’s only so many hours in the day. Do I think Mike is sexist? Yes. I think I am sexist. I think we grew up in and live in a sexist culture. It takes work to understand that in our selves and others. It’s a hermeneutics thang. And it seemed to me that when one woman said she thought something a man said was sexist she got jumped on by men and women. She was scolded for not valuing her allies. A swirl of refracted pros and cons hit the web and at the end of the day what seemed to happen, in my opinion, was that she was told not to criticize the little bit of sexism in the good guys. And when another woman asked to not be included in the loopy valuing of women’s bodies we saw crazy extreme images of women’s bodies embedded in the response of an generally lovely, respectful, generous man. The whole thing left me feeling incomplete, raw, and a bit afraid to speak up.

The “crazy extreme images of women’s bodies” were contained in a composite image of three men’s magazine covers included in that post. I knew at the time it was provocative to include them, though I didn’t understand that—again—I was acting in bad faith. I’d written:

I accept that other people—men or women—may have ethical, religious, or ideological problems with such photographs and I respect their objections. The simple answer is, though, that they are not obliged to enter the barbershop, pick up the magazines, and read them. If the mere sight of a scantily-clad young woman on a magazine cover causes profound discomfort, I’d point to the multiplicity of more serious injustices that warrant their immediate attention.

On the other hand, I would be offended if I saw Inside Sport, FHM, or Ralph in amongst the magazines in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room. Or in the magazine rack at the local library. Or in the pile of newspapers and magazines in the pickup area at the local pizza shop.

I’m guess I’m saying that it all boils down to context. What might be acceptable in the barber shop isn’t necessarily tolerable elsewhere.

Firstly, I argue that girly magazines are OK in the barbershop (where one might expect to find them) but not in the doctor’s waiting room or the pizza shop where they would be reasonably regarded as inappropriate. Then, I plop the girly images in the middle of my weblog, images that would be entirely unexpected given those I normally publish.

I should have followed Stavros’s example. Linking to an item about a rape in Korea, he wrote: [Warning : Graphic and disturbing image of rape victim, halfway down page.]

I’ve subsequently amended the post. Again, I apologize to Tish, humbly and unreservedly.

What have I learned? I’ve learned this: I need to pay more attention to nuance and intent in another blogger’s post before responding with one of my own. Not all the time, but sometimes.

I need to occasionally corral my instictive exuberance, my heartfelt belief that conflict, and only conflict, offers the key to engaging an audience’s attention.

I need to resist the temptation to commandeer someone else’s ideas to make a point that’s only tangential to the topic under discussion. If blogging is to be a conversation, it needs to be a genuine conversation in which each of us listens carefully and responds honestly to what the other has actually said. Otherwise, we become like bores at a dinner party, cutting across the conversation to score debating points.

How does one learn to listen carefully, to pay close attention? Andrius Kulikauskas suggests relinquishing one’s strongly held point-of-view:

The only thing you really need to know is “Always look at everything from their point of view”. Then you can be hyperflexible, respond in the ways that any good person would, and ready for the good to come from any direction. And you will get hurt just a very little bit…

“Always look at everything from their point of view”. I may apply my own mind, but only to their situation. We may disagree on everything, but never the fact that I am one with them, completely devoted, not I but he, not I but she.

Needless to say, this takes a sustained effort. Discussing Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, David Brooks writes:

Hitchens argues that Orwell’s most prominent quality was his independence, and it was an independence that had to be earned through willpower. Orwell was, Hitchens continues, something of a natural misanthrope: “He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the Jews, his awkwardness with women, and his anti-intellectualism.” It was through continued acts of self-mastery that Orwell was able to overcome most of his natural prejudices, in order to see things as they really were and champion groups that needed championing. Orwell was always checking himself, which perhaps explains the tone of cool reserve that marks his prose.

I adore Orwell as a writer and I admire him as a human being. I love this image of his “continued acts of self-mastery”—that conveys to me the core requirement of existential good faith.

Is it difficult? Almost certainly. Is it impossible? Probably not. I’ll leave the last two words to Tish.

I guess I want to hope that men who are my allies – deep in their hearts – will listen when I tell them that something that they say is sexist, think about it for a minute, if they decide they agree acknowledge the sexism and then we can laugh and move on. No pillaring. No silencing. No expectation that it’ll never happen again. Just a moment of mutuality…

There is a part of me that wants to say that the young men who felt like they had a right to comment loudly on and reach for Dorothea’s breasts may have just been at the barber shop. And there is a part of me that feels like the minute I say it I will hear the tongues hitting the backs of teeth, and see the eyes roll. But I gotta tell ya, that whole boys will be boys thing is lost on me.

And Dorothea was asking for help. We are all asking for help. We can not do this alone.

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Sunday 08 December 2002

Sixteen years a priest

On December 6, AKMA celebrated 16 years of being a priest.

Jeneane Sessum wrote:

I know a caring person, a good dad, and an empathetic and passionate human being when I read one. AKMA is all of those.

Burningbird wrote:

No, I just don’t see the priest. I see the man who has made choices in his past that have carved out the person we know today. If his actions are the actions of a Man of God, then I would say that AKMA has really been a Man of God since the day he was born.

As I thought about the wording of my own congratulatory post, I couldn’t help feeling it strange that two of our smartest bloggers had missed AKMA’s essence: the one characteristic that demonstrates his humility and lack of pretension, while defining the Blogarian chaplain as unique amongst clergymen:

AKMA is the priest who washes dishes.

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Thursday 12 December 2002

I knew I was weird but…

I’ve been thinking some more about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the fact that the PTypes questionnaire suggested I have an Idealist temperament of the Sensitive personality type. PTypes lists the attributes of each temperament (the others are Rationalist, Traditionalist, and Hedonist) as well as each of the four personality types associated with each temperament: the personality types for the Idealist temperament being Conscientious, Sensitive, Vigilant, and Dramatic. Tellingly, the HTML files for each the detail pages are named according to the psychic pathology for each of the personality types:

  • obsessive-compulsive.html (Conscientious)
  • avoidant.html (Sensitive)
  • paranoid.html (Vigilant), and
  • histrionic.html (Dramatic).

The temperament pages list positive and negative attributes for each of the four temperaments. Those for the Idealist temperament are:

Positive attributes: altruistic, analytical, authentic, behaved, believing, benevolent, calm, caring, chart maker, communicative, compassionate, compliant, conscientious, considerate, creative, cultured, deep, deliberate, dependable, detail conscious, detailed, disciplined, emotional, empathic, enthused, enthusiastic, ethical, even-tempered, exacting, faithful, fervent, genuine, helpful, idealistic, industrious, inspired, intuitive, loyal, musical, nurturing, orderly, organized, perfectionist, persistent, personal, planner, pleasing, precise, prophetic, psychic, relating, reliable, respectful, scheduled, self-sacrificing, sensitive, serious, sincere, spiritual, subjective, sympathetic, systematic, thoughtful, understanding, unifier, unworldly, visionary, warm, well-behaved, well-organized.

Negative attributes: alienated, bashful, confused, credulous, critical, depressed, detached, difficult, estranged, exacting, fussy, guilt prone, hard to please, hypochondriac, indecisive, inflexible, insecure, introvert, judgmental, loner, moody, moralistic, mystical, negative attitude, overly sensitive, perfectionistic, pessimistic, picky, revengeful, resentful, too sensitive, skeptical, self-absorbed, self-critical, self-righteous, stuffy, suspicious, touchy, unforgiving, unpopular, unrealistic, withdrawn, worry prone.

I did try graying out the attributes that I believe don’t apply to me but rapidly wound up feeling like a conceited prat.

I had greater success with choosing from the characteristic traits and behaviors for each personality type listed in Dr. John M. Oldham’s The New Personality Self-Portrait. These are more concrete and I felt more comfortable graying out those that didn’t seem to match my behavior. (As always, comments are welcome, with the proviso that I already know I’m the least qualified person in the world to make such judgements.) Nevertheless, I’m convinced that my choices of traits and behaviours from each of the personality types yielded a reasonably accurate self-portrait.

Sensitive

  1. Familiarity. Individuals with the Sensitive personality style prefer the known to the unknown. They are comfortable with, even inspired by, habit, repetition, and routine.
  2. Concern. Sensitive individuals care deeply about what other people think of them.
  3. Circumspection. They behave with deliberate discretion in their dealings with others. They do not make hasty judgments or jump in before they know what is appropriate.
  4. Polite reserve. Socially they take care to maintain a courteous, self-restrained demeanor.
  5. Role. They function best in scripted settings, vocationally and socially: when they know precisely what is expected of them, how they are supposed to relate to others, and what they are expected to say.
  6. Privacy. Sensitive men and women are not quick to share their innermost thoughts and feelings with others, even those they know well.

Vigilant

  1. Autonomy. Vigilant-style individuals possess a resilient independence. They keep their own counsel, they require no outside reassurance or advice, they make decisions easily, and they can take care of themselves.
  2. Caution. They are careful in their dealings with others, preferring to size up a person before entering into a relationship.
  3. Perceptiveness. They are good listeners, with an ear for subtlety, tone, and multiple levels of communication.
  4. Self-defense. Individuals with Vigilant style are feisty and do not hesitate to stand up for themselves, especially when they are under attack.
  5. Alertness to criticism. They take criticism very seriously, without becoming intimidated.
  6. Fidelity. They place a high premium on fidelity and loyalty. They work hard to earn it, and they never take it for granted.

Dramatic

  1. Feelings. Dramatic men and women live in an emotional world. They are sensation oriented, emotionally demonstrative, and physically affectionate, They react emotionally to events and can shift quickly from mood to mood.
  2. Color. They experience life vividly and expansively. They have rich imaginations, they tell entertaining stories, and they are drawn to romance and melodrama.
  3. Attention. Dramatic people like to be seen and noticed. They are often the center of attention, and they rise to the occasion when all eyes are on them.
  4. Appearance. They pay a lot of attention to grooming, and they enjoy clothes, style, and fashion.
  5. Sexual attraction. In appearance and behavior, Dramatic individuals enjoy their sexuality. They are seductive, engaging, charming tempters and temptresses.
  6. Engagement. Easily putting their trust in others, they are able to become quickly involved in relationships.
  7. The spirit is willing. People with Dramatic personality style eagerly respond to new ideas and suggestions from others.

Conscientious

  1. Hard work. The Conscientious person is dedicated to work, works very hard, and is capable of intense, single-minded effort.
  2. The right thing. To be Conscientious is to be a person of conscience. These are men and women of strong moral principles and values. Opinions and beliefs on any subject are rarely held lightly. Conscientious individuals want to do the right thing.
  3. The right way. Everything must be done “right,” and the Conscientious person has a clear understanding of what that means, from the correct way to balance the checkbook, to the best strategy to achieve the boss’s objectives, to how to fit every single dirty dish into the dishwasher.
  4. Perfectionism. The Conscientious person likes all tasks and projects to be complete to the final detail, without even minor flaws.
  5. Perseverance. They stick to their convictions and opinions. Opposition only serves to strengthen their dogged determination.
  6. Order and detail. Conscientious people like the appearance of orderliness and tidiness. They are good organizers, catalogers, and list makers. No detail is too small for Conscientious consideration.
  7. Prudence. Thrifty, careful, and cautious in all areas of their lives, Conscientious individuals do not give in to reckless abandon or wild excess.
  8. Accumulation. A “pack rat,” the Conscientious person saves and collects things, reluctant to discard anything that has, formerly had, or someday may have value for him or her.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what happened to Narcissistic? Well, believe it or not, that’s not an Idealist trait. What surprised me most is that, even though I’m supposed to be Sensitive, I got a full score for the Vigilant (a.k.a. paranoid) personality type (which maps to an ENFP Myers-Briggs type). PTypes has a chart that lists the Correspondence of five personality typologies (PTypes personality type, Keirsey’s Myers-Briggs type, Riso’s Enneagram type, PTypes personality disorder, and Brau’s astrological type).

I guess I can be best summed up as a Sensitive/Vigilant, INFJ, Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental, Avoidant/Paranoid Aquarius.

Which might explain why I’m having trouble getting a date (though not my obsession with the Dishmatique).

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Friday 20 December 2002

A permanent reprieve (from socializing)

Although it looks like the boss’s illness has given Dorothea a reprieve from the compulsory office party, it’s clearly only a matter of time before she’ll be expected to attend the rescheduled event:

…there is a social compulsion involved in this office’s activities that does tend to irk me, I confess. It’s just not acceptable to dodge the various after-work get-togethers. Now, they’ll go out of their way to accommodate everyone’s schedule, I happily grant them that—but it’s indeed frustrating to feel that I do not have permission to say, “Thanks, but I have other plans. Have a good time without me, though!”

What’s more, I honestly don’t think this style of compulsory social interaction would exist in a mixed-gender office. Last couple places I worked, if I didn’t want to go out for a beer after work, it was no big. Great if I did come, fine if I didn’t, and nobody cared that I don’t actually drink beer.

I haven’t encountered this style of compulsory social interaction in any of the mixed-gender organizations where I’ve worked. And although I’ve never been employed in an all-female office—which I imagine would be a salaried version of What Fresh Hell Is This? A Guy Marooned in Women’s Studies—I did spend my university summer vacations working in an exclusively male environment, a shipyard, with workmates who drank together for two or three hours at the end of every work day. I never felt any obligation to join them and, when I occasionally did, the group opened up and absorbed me, as though I’d been a fulltime participant all along.

My family, on the other hand, almost defined itself through compulsory social interaction. When I was younger, I found nearly impossible to avoid “family gatherings,” which I experienced as every atom of boredom in the universe compressed into four or five excruciating hours. Gradually, however, I devised strategies for extricating myself. The first, and easiest, was to have other engagements: work functions, gallery openings, babysitting for friends… but, as I suspect Dorothea discovered some time ago, it’s impossible to recycle these excuses indefinitely.

Happily, once I had established myself as a photographer and was showing my work in galleries, I could redefine myself as “an artist” and thus be excused from most social obligations. It didn’t hurt that my mother paints in her spare time and accepts the idea that artists need to be anti-social in order to create. But, even in the larger society, which has almost no interest in the arts, the myth of artistic eccentricity encourages many people to make exceptions for an “artistic” friend or colleague that they would refuse for anyone else.

For the resolutely unsympathetic, I augmented my “I just vant to be alone” persona with a veneer of scientific respectability in the form of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It only takes ten minutes or so to explain the various types, a little longer if you encourage your colleague to think about the behavior of their family members and friends in terms of the MBTI. And once extroverted people understand how excessive social interaction drains introverts of their vital life force, they respond with a mixture of sympathy and pity. “Poor you,” I see them thinking, “to be missing out on all the fun.” But then, the magic words: “You’re excused.”

So, if I were in Dorothea’s situation I’d use a multi-pronged approach. I would disengage from the workplace by redefining myself as someone for whom the data entry job is simply a means to an end: a career in markup, e-Books, librarianship… in other words, a higher calling. This needs to be handled with a degree of delicacy since I wouldn’t want to come across as a snob. But, in my experience, most people are happy to relax and let us driven folks get on with it. (I learned to do this gracefully while working in the shipyard.)

Then, I would recast my passion for gaming as a form of social research. I’d explain that I function badly in informal situations since I can’t help analyzing the behaviour and interactions of those around me in terms of game theory. I don’t do this on the job, of course, since my attention is fully absorbed by interpreting and entering the census data. But, put me in a social situation, and I immediately become an observer. And who wants to be studied while they’re relaxing and having fun?

Next, I’d explain my introversion in Myers-Briggs terms. (Dorothea revealed that she’s an IXTJ in a comment on one of my recent MBTI posts.) I’d add that my observational behavior at parties is typical of introverts.

Finally, I’d attend an office party every now and again, to show I understand and accept my social obligations—to a degree. Inconsistent? Not at all. Because I would make it clear beforehand that I would only attend for an hour. When the hour was up, I would thank the organizer or hostess, say goodbye to everyone individually, and leave. How would my colleagues react? They’d be thrilled that, given my discomfort in large social gatherings, I’d made an effort on their behalf. (Although I quite like babies, in my guise as Dorothea I would never go to a baby-related event, not even for an hour—since babies only occur infrequently and I’d only attend work gatherings infrequently, it’s not hard to ensure that the two occasions never coincide.)

A long time ago I realized everything would be OK when my mother told me she’d picked up the photographs of a party I’d attended at her house. “There’s one of you I’m going to have framed,” she said. “And I’ll look at it every time I’m planning a party. You’re standing in the background of a group of people and you look as though you’re hoping the ground will open up and swallow you or, failing that, that you might be lucky enough to be struck by lightning.”

That’s the thing about introverts: while all you extroverts are enjoying each other’s company, we’re happy to have a fabulous time on our own.

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Thursday 09 January 2003

Tansu

Ayako had no sympathy for the disabled.

This morning, when I read in an email from UsableNet that the European Union has designated 2003 as the “Year of the People with Disabilities,” I recalled a conversation we had one evening over dinner. There’d been a story in the Herald about a group of disabled Japanese who were here on a fact-finding tour, with a photograph of a young paraplegic man being carried down the stairs from a Qantas aircraft to a wheelchair on the tarmac.

“Naze kita no kashira. Ano hito.” Ayako asked. I wonder why they came. Those people.

“To check out how we help people with disabilities in Australia,” I replied.

“They shouldn’t be here.” She struggled to suppress her irritation.

“Why not? They just want to see how we do things here. Maybe they’ll get some good ideas to take back to Japan.”

“They’re an embarassment,” she told me. “The government shouldn’t have allowed them to leave Japan.”

I was stunned. I’d spent much of my childhood with an intellectually-handicapped girl named Jennifer who was a year or so older than me. Jennifer had no hair so she always wore a wig or a woolen beanie, she had steel braces on her legs, and her speech was severely limited. Almost every day a dozen or so kids would play in the street and in each other’s yards for hours at a time—running, chasing, hide-and-seek, roller-skating, riding our bikes and billy-carts—and for an hour or so Jennifer’s parents would allow her to join us. Whenever she did, we switched to gentler games so that she could join in. Occasionally a new family would move into our street and the routine was always the same. One of the new arrivals would poke fun at Jennifer and would be very quickly put straight: “She’s just like you and I,” someone would tell them, “only different. When she comes out to play it’s our job to look after her.”

“How would you like to be in a wheelchair?” I asked Ayako.

“I wouldn’t mind,” she replied. “How could I be upset if I’d never known anything different?”

“What about if you’d had an accident? You’d always been able to walk and now you couldn’t. Or if you’d been born crippled, how would it feel to see everyone around you walking and running?”

“You don’t understand!” she said passionately. “People have accidents or they’re born like that because they did something terrible in a past life. They have to spend this life atoning for their sin.”

I knew Ayako saw the world differently—from the start I’d been attracted by her ability to surprise me. And I knew better than to persist.

“Let’s do the dishes,” I suggested, “then we’ll drive down to Bondi and buy an ice-cream.” She loved lemon gelato.

Stuck behind a bus on Bondi Road, Ayako sitting quietly at my side, I remembered Kevin, another handicapped figure from my boyhood. When I was in senior high school, Kevin—who had Downs Syndrome—must have been about twenty. He lived with his mother. His father, who’d been a bus driver, had died suddenly when Kevin was young and, once he was no longer attending his special school—there were no jobs for the handicapped in those days—the guys at the bus depot, his dad’s workmates, did this marvellous thing. Realizing his mum needed a break now and again, they got Kevin a bus conductor’s uniform, with a leather satchel, a ticket holder, and a whistle.

Conductors were only assigned to buses during peak hours or on busy routes; the rest of the time the driver collected the fares. So, a couple of mornings a week, a neighbor would drop Kevin off at the depot after the morning rush. He would board a driver-only bus and spend the day riding back-and-forth, handing out tickets and putting the coins he received into his satchel. At the end of the day, one of the drivers would drop him off at home and he’d proudly show his mother the money he’d earned.

It could never happen now. Everyone would have a nervous breakdown about workers compensation and public-liability insurance, do-gooders would complain that Kevin was being exploited, and the Transport Union would argue that he was doing a conductor out of a job. But back then, we all thought it was marvellous to get on the bus and find Kevin walking up and down the aisle, blowing his whistle when all the passengers had alighted, calling out: “Fares please!” and “Move right down the back of the bus.”

Ayako ate her lemon gelato at the water’s edge, salty foam lapping at her toes. We drove home and went to bed. The first night she came to sleep at my place, many months before, she’d brought a nightlight. “I don’t like to sleep in the dark,” she explained. I didn’t mind. We spent hours making love in its soft glow.

“When I was little,” she said as she lay with her head on my shoulder, “around four or five years old, if I was naughty my mother would lock me in the tansu for an hour.” A tansu is a Japanese chest of drawers or a cabinet with deep drawers at the bottom.

“That’s unbelievable,” I said. “You must have been terrified.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” she replied. “I was lucky in a way. If my older brother was naughty, she would tie him to a maple tree for an hour, even in the middle of winter when the garden was covered in snow.”

I held her tight, speechless once again.

“When I grew older and became too big for the tansu,” Ayako added, “my mother told me that if I was naughty I would come back in my next life as a cripple.”

Tansu

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Saturday 08 March 2003

Ikuko’s name

“When I was in middle-school,” Ikuko told me, “I hated my name.” We were lying in her bed, drinking champagne, fooling around. I traced her name in the glossy film of perspiration on her stomach. (On our second date, I’d asked her to write the characters for me. Since then I’d written them dozens of times in my notebook and on scraps of paper.) I could already guess what she wanted to say.

Whereas in the West we “come” during sex (or “cum” as they say in pornland), the Japanese “go,” saying iku (I’m going) as they approach a climax and itta (I went) immediately after.

But Ikuko never said “iku.” Sometimes she would bite her wrist or the pillow instead. Nor did she ever say “itta” though she came easily and often. The only time I asked, saying “Itta?” (Did you come?), she simply replied “Mmm, yokatta wa” (It was great).

Japanese characters for IkukoIku has multiple meanings since it can be written with a variety of kanji, all with the same pronunciation. I tried to reassure her. “But it’s a lovely name. I looked up your iku in my dictionary. It means ‘aromatic, fragrant, sweet-smelling’.”

“I was teased about it constantly,” she replied, “all through middle school. The boys were always saying to me ‘Iku! Iku!’ Even some of the girls joined in.”

“So what did you do? Did you tell your parents? Or the teachers?”

“How could I do that? I would have been too ashamed.”

I knew it was pointless to ask why she hadn’t changed her name, if she hated it so much. Not only might she have offended her parents; worse still would have been asking the local bureaucracy to record the new name in her family register.

Naze o-namae o kaeta’n desu ka?” (Why did you change your name?) When, not long after we’d started seeing each other, I told Ikuko that I’d changed my name—from John Anthony to Jonathon—she’d changed the subject. Now, six months later, she was suddenly curious.

Yume o mita’n desu yo.” (I had a dream.) In my dream I was standing in line, listening as a female voice called a roll. When she said “Jonathon Delacour”, I thought: “That’s me.” I looked down and saw that I was holding a three-by-five index card in both hands, white, with JONATHON DELACOUR written on it in a neat script. I woke up, knowing that I’d discovered my real name.

Ikuko sipped her champagne. Drops of condensation splashed gently on her stomach, nearly obliterating the character ko.

“I knew they were having sex and that they knew I wasn’t. Not that I was saving myself for someone special, it’s just that none of the boys in my school appealed. But I knew, even before having sex, that I’d enjoy it, because I’d already discovered how to give myself pleasure.”

“Now, occasionally after I come, I think of my stupid classmates. None of those boys will ever have me and the girls are stuck with children and salaryman husbands. They probably can’t remember when they last had sex.”

She took a mouthful of champagne, rolled nimbly onto my chest, and kissed me, filling my mouth with warm bubbles.

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Tuesday 25 March 2003

The unbearable heaviness of babble

I’ve been meaning to write about Liz’s extroversion post ever since Phil Ringnalda pointed to it at the beginning of the month. Though Phil doesn’t reveal precisely what Liz revealed “about extroverts that has baffled [him] for years,” her post confirmed what I’d long suspected: that extroverts don’t know what they think about an issue until they’ve talked about it at (interminable) length. As Liz explained:

…I said that the whole concept of something being “self-evident” seems to me to very specific to introverts. Where an introvert sees something as obvious based on observed actions, an extrovert is more likely to want to explore it, to triangulate views from multiple sources before forming an opinion. To be valid, for me, an opinion must include input from other sources—I don’t believe any of us can be “objective” or see a full version of what’s around us, and without asking what others see, I don’t believe I’m getting a full picture.

That’s where the conversation got particularly interesting—I told her that I thought the extrovert’s desire to discuss things endlessly was the antithesis to the belief that something is “self-evident.” She said she’d always assumed that the talk was an announcement of fully formed ideas, not a thought-forming process—that the people talking “already had their ideas, and felt a need to subject us to them.” And I replied that for me, that talk is really the only thought-forming process; the thoughts aren’t solid until they’re expressed, discussed, poked, prodded, etc. Internally, thoughts are amorphous and unformed. When “exposed to the light” through expression, you can see if they’re solid.

I was reminded of Faulkner’s question: “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve written?” (Which, for extroverts would be: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I’ve said?”)

The process of triangulation that Liz describes, of comparing views from multiple sources, is something I can do in my head because—and I have no idea whether this holds true for other introverts—for most subjects, I don’t feel attached to any particular point of view. For example, I regard General Curtis LeMay as one of the most gifted and courageous generals of World War II while at the same time I believe that he was a war criminal according to the standards established by the Tokyo War Crimes trials. I suspect it’s this ability to hold simultaneously contradictory viewpoints that makes the internal triangulation possible, though the end result—a state of almost permanent ambivalence—is frustrating for those who see issues from one perspective or another.

[I admit to being puzzled by Liz’s need to determine, through conversation, “what others see,” since I am so rarely surprised by what others see. One only needs to spend ten minutes or so with most people in order to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, their position on any issue. The introvert’s pain at being trapped in a conversation with extroverts is caused partly by boredom—we’ve already formulated allthe arguments in our heads—and partly by repetition—we then have to listen to those arguments being repeated ad infinitum.]

The comments on Liz’s post are equally fascinating. A few people warn of the dangers of stereotyping, dangers that I believe are insignificant when compared to the insights that the MBTI offers about different temperamental styles, why extreme differences—for example, between introversion and extroversion—lead to conflict and misunderstanding, and what each side might do to facilitate harmonious relations.

Jeremy raised an interesting question when he asked:

whether or not bloggers and blogging has any relationship to these sets of indicators intro/extroversion or whether they are completely unrelated?

My guess is that Liz might be one of the few extroverts whose weblog I read regularly since her writing in no way resembles what she describes as the “constant babbling” of her conversational style. But then I’m not attracted to the traditional link+quote+comment weblog, which I instinctively believe is more likely to belong to an extrovert than an introvert.

I visited friends in the Blue Mountains last Saturday and, during the 80 minute train ride, a few different people in my carriage conducted protracted, voluble, and loud mobile phone conversations. I found myself wondering, along the lines suggested by Jeremy, about the relationship between extroversion and the willingness to reveal to strangers both the intimacies and banalities of one’s existence. “Have these people no sense of privacy, or shame?” I asked myself.

To me, being interrupted on a train or in a restaurant, while I’m thinking or reading or watching, is an intolerable intrusion. Yet all around me people are constantly checking their mobile phones for voicemail or SMS messages. Surely only extroverts feel such a relentless desire to be in constant contact with their family, friends, and/or business associates.

In her post Liz mentions that she (an off-the-scale extrovert) is married to an introvert and in a comment on her own post she quotes a couple of typical conversations which suggest a mutual tolerance for their diametrically opposed temperamental/conversational styles. I began to wonder about their respective mobile phone usage: does Liz make ten times as many calls as her husband? Does he, as I do, have his phone switched off most of the time? Does he, as I do, delete all messages before listening to them? (I guess not—if I were married, with children, I think I’d listen to my messages.)

I realized that I’ve often wondered about what it might be like for an introvert to be married to (or in a relationship with) an off-the-scale extrovert. No offence to Liz, or any other extrovert, but I think I’d rather spend eternity having my fingernails pulled out. At the very least, it seems to be a recipe for unendurable torment on both sides. So how do they make it work? I’m not suggesting that introverts and extroverts can’t get along—rather it’s the presence of an extreme type in a relationship that has me baffled. What would a relationship between a mild extrovert and an extreme introvert be like? Could two extreme extroverts be happy together?

Or have I been so absorbed in my conception of the ideal relationship (between introverts who can intuitively share their thoughts and feelings) that anything else seems utterly strange?

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Wednesday 26 March 2003

Telepathy

Dorothea’s response to finding out that I have a mobile phone—she was “completely wogboggled”—provoked a sense of panic that I might be expelled from the Introvert’s Guild. I’ve already pointed out that I have the phone switched off most of the time (in fact, I rarely carrry it with me) and that I delete any voicemail messages without listening to them. To avoid any accusations that I’m not a bona-fide introvert, allow me to explain how I came to have one.

Like Dorothea I couldn’t imagine anything more intrusive. Then, a couple of years ago, at a time when I had to attend a ten-day seminar, my mother spent a couple of days in hospital and I found myself asking a colleague if he’d mind my using his phone to check her progress. The second time I did this I thought to myself: “I can’t rely on payphones to make these calls, I’ll have to get my own mobile phone.”

At the back of my mind was a story I’d heard about certain Amish who eschew the use of modern technology until there’s an accident or a child is ill—then it’s suddenly OK to use a non-Amish neighbor’s telephone. It felt hypocritical to me to be rabidly against mobile phones but to use someone else’s.

I mentioned to my former girlfriend Natsuko, with whom I remain close friends, that I’d decided to get a mobile phone. She immediately said, “You can have mine. I don’t need it anymore.” (Originally a freelance designer, she’d recently secured a fulltime job.) I took her somewhat clunky Phillips Twist phone to the Telstra store, got a new number, and organized a monthly plan. Every month I pay about $25 not to use it. This month, because I’ve been to Melbourne a couple of times, I’ve used it instead of calling from the ludicrously expensive hotel phone.

I was astonished and impressed by Dorothea’s intuitive realization that my mobile phone was a “living-in-Japan thing” because, if I did live in Japan, I would have a mobile phone and I’d use it constantly. Why the turnaround? Because I’m much less introverted when I’m in Japan—I talk to anyone about anything in order to practise my Japanese. When I’m traveling alone, my favorite part of the day is having dinner in a tiny restaurant, where—as inevitably happens when the other customers realize that I drink alcohol and can carry a conversation—I can spend a few hours drinking and chatting. (My Japanese becomes noticeably more fluent when I’ve had a beer or three.) I’d also use the mobile to send and receive SMS messages since that would allow me to practice reading and writing Japanese.

But Dorothea rejected my suggestion of “the ideal relationship (between introverts who can intuitively share their thoughts and feelings).”

Jonathon. Dude. Wrong. Wrong ever so. Introverts are introverts, not mind readers. Trust me on this one.

Chinese characters for Japanese word ishin-denshin (from one heart to another)Interestingly, this idea also happens to be a Japanese thing. In conversations with Japanese about relationships, the term ishin-denshin frequently crops up as one of the characteristics of the “ideal relationship.” The first and third characters mean “by means of” and “transmit, communicate” respectively, whereas the second and fourth character means “heart, mind, spirit.” The dictionary definition of ishin-denshin is “tacit understanding; telepathy; communion of mind with mind” while my Kodansha Dictionary of Basic Japanese Idioms renders it as “from one heart to another” and offers the following supplemental meanings:

immediate communication from one mind to another, telepathy, telepathic communication between people, tacit understanding, intuitively shared thoughts or feelings, to be able to read each other’s mind.

The example sentences suggest how the term might be used by Japanese speakers:

Don’t make me spell it out. You must know what I’m getting at, surely.

Dad didn’t have to say a word. I knew exactly what he was thinking.

He and I know each other so well that we can tell what the other’s thinking.

Chinese characters for Japanese word isshin-dotai (one heart, the same body)The entry for ishin-denshin cross-references a related term, isshin-dōtai, rendered as “one heart, the same body” (which is exactly what the four characters mean, respectively). The supplemental meanings are:

of one heart and mind, as one mind and body.

The first example sentence is similar to those in the entry for ishin-denshin:

We’re one and the same, you and me. You can tell me anything.

But the second could have been written by Dorothea herself:

When they say man and wife are of one heart and mind, isn’t that just a fantasy (illusion)?

It intrigues me that the idea of telepathic communication between lovers or spouses has such a strong resonance in Japanese culture; and I wonder whether this is because Japanese speech and writing are so oblique compared to English. Much of the meaning of a Japanese sentence is inferred rather than stated—for example, I’ve heard it it said that 60% of Japanese sentences lack a subject—and I have to admit that it’s this indirect, elliptical quality that particularly attracts me to Japanese and to the Japanese. I never quite know quite what’s going on and consequently, whether I’m reading or listening or watching, I feel constantly engaged. That is, of course, the antithesis of ishin-denshin, but I only ever cited it as an ideal.

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Tuesday 07 October 2003

Super Best

Mark Pilgrim posed an “addiction koan”:

Your spouse, who hasn’t had a cigarette or a drink in 12 years, comes home late one night with smoke in their hair and alcohol on their breath. What do you do?

I picked up Ayako at her apartment one Sunday morning, many years ago. We were meeting some friends for a picnic in the Royal National Park, an hour south of Sydney. Waiting for the lights to change at the intersection near her apartment, I leaned across and kissed her. Mingling with the Listerine was the unmistakable taste of whisky.

“You taste of whisky,” I told her.

“I do not,” she replied.

Enka singer Ishikawa SayuriI knew better than to argue, remembering her habit of flatly denying inconvenient facts. So we chatted about the weather, the onigiri she’d made as part of our lunch, and our plans to spend a couple of weeks in Shikoku the following spring. I popped a cassette into the player, one I’d made the night before from my favorite enka CD, Ishikawa Sayuri’s Super Best. (It’s oddly gratifying to find, on the Ishikawa Sayuri page at Barbara’s Enka Site, that Super Best is Barbara’s desert island enka CD: “If someone really forced me to choose one performer and one album, here it is.”)

Ayako pretended not to like enka, dismissing it as obasan no ongaku (“music for aunties”), but I could tell she secretly admired Ishikawa Sayuri. As Barbara says, “She pours feeling into every song until it bursts, but somehow she does so with a beautifully elegant restraint.”

Arriving at the park, we drove slowly along until I saw our friends in the distance, carefully laying out the contents of their picnic basket on a bright tartan blanket.

I parked the car and turned off the ignition.

“I have a confession,” said Ayako. I waited for her to continue, and the words tumbled out in a torrent.

“This morning, when I met Shinobu for coffee, she offered me a cigarette and I couldn’t resist. I know you don’t like the smell of cigarettes but Shinobu told me that if I washed my hair and had a couple of sips of whisky it would get rid of the smell of tobacco and the taste. And then, if I drank a glass of milk, that would take care of the whisky too. But the milk didn’t really work because ten minutes before you were due to pick me up I could still taste the whisky in my mouth. So I gargled twice with Listerine and hoped you wouldn’t notice. But you did. And now I feel a little bit drunk.”

Though I’d once told Ayako that it was much nicer kissing a woman who doesn’t smoke, I hadn’t expected my casual remark to have such an impact.

“They must have been big sips of whisky,” I replied. “Next time you have a cigarette it might be best to go with just the milk and Listerine.”

I leaned across and kissed her again. The barest trace of whisky on her tongue tasted indescribably sexy.

“We’d better get going,” I told her. “Emiko and Ken are waiting.”

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Friday 07 November 2003

Vivacious

Teresa left a comment on my post about introversion/extroversion, The Unbearable Heaviness of Babble.

I really could use some direction. My guy is introvert from the word go and I am an extrovert. Seriously! We have a wonderful relationship. He is a wonderful person but, I have trouble dealing with him not being social when I am. Everything I have read leads me to believe this is normal and I being an extrovert will feel rejected. I don’t want to feel this way. I could use some advice on how to deal with his alone time without feeling rejected or ignored. I want to understand who he is.

Help
Thanks

Language Hat answered:

Teresa: You just have to accept him the way he is, and trust that what appears to be anti-social grumpiness is just quiet observation and reflection. As an introvert myself, I assure you it’s awful to be prodded to be social; I enjoy talking about interesting things with one or two people, but if you put me with a bunch of people I don’t know, I clam up and observe. And I spend a *lot* of time reading and thinking. I’m deeply grateful to my wife for understanding this and not feeling abandoned; she knows I am always close to her, no matter how shut off I appear. If you can convince yourself to accept this about your guy, he will be much happier — and so will you.

I didn’t reply to Teresa’s comment. Not because I couldn’t add anything to Language Hat’s advice, excellent as it is. But because at the time Teresa left her comment I was sitting at the bottom of a deep well of introversion.

In Murakami Haruki’s Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle) the protagonist, Okada Toru, meets an elderly man named Mamiya who, as a Lieutenant with the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in 1937, was sent on a secret reconnaissance mission to the border with Outer Mongolia. Mamiya and his party were captured, one of his comrades was flayed alive, and Mamiya left to die at the bottom of a well.

Okada finds a deep well near his house, in the middle of Tokyo. He buys a rope ladder, removes one of the semi-circular wooden covers, and climbs down to the bottom.

Taking a breath, I sat on the floor of the well, with my back against the wall. I closed my eyes and let my body become accustomed to the place. All right, then, I thought: here I am in the bottom of a well…

I sat in the dark. Far above me, like a sign of something, floated the perfect half moon of light given shape by the well cap. And yet none of the light from up there managed to find its way to the bottom.

I’ve always loved Murakami’s image of the well bottom, so remote from everyday babble but with the ordinary, mysterious world glimmering in the distance. After a while, Okada’s eyes become accustomed to what he calls the “pale darkness”.

…but pale as it might be, it had its own particular kind of density, which in some cases contained a more deeply meaningful darkness than perfect pitch darkness. In it, you could see something. And at the same time, you could see nothing at all.

Here in this darkness, with its strange sense of significance, my memories began to take on a power they had never had before. The fragmentary images they called up inside me were mysteriously vivid in every detail, to the point where I felt I could grasp them in my hands.

Like Language Hat, I spend a *lot* of time reading and thinking. I also enjoy talking about interesting things with not just “one or two” but up to three people! This past week, however, I haven’t had any paid work, so in addition to reading and thinking I’ve spent a *lot* of time sleeping.

It might be the Mega Memory™ pills that have caused me to think a lot about my childhood, like the other guy who bought Mega Memory™ from Karen’s pharmacy. And perhaps re-living all those memories is nearly as exhausting as living the original experiences. Or it might be other recent changes: the weather is getting warmer, I’ve started swimming again, I stopped drinking. Because on Monday morning I went to the dentist and was home by eleven, planning to do some writing. Instead I lay down on the bed for a quick nap and woke up three hours later. On Tuesday morning I went to Kmart to buy some towels and bed linen. Again I came home and slept for three hours in the middle of the day. Wednesday I stayed in bed, having decided to finish Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 30s. At eleven I drifted off to sleep, again waking up three hours later. This time, however, I’d had a dream:

I had set up my desktop computer and 19-inch monitor on the low brick fence of a neighbor’s house in the street where I lived as a child. (I’m an adult in my dream.) After working at the computer for a while it occurred to me to wonder where the power was coming from. I looked over the monitor and saw an extension lead snaking across the lawn and down the side passage. I stood up, walked to the front door, and knocked. A woman in her mid-thirties answered the door. She was wearing a floral dressing gown—what used to be called, I think, a housecoat—and holding a mop. I apologized for using her electricity without permission and offered her some money. She refused my ten dollar note, told me not to worry about it, and asked if I’d like a cup of tea or coffee. “A cup of tea would be great,” I replied.

As we sat at her kitchen table I suddenly felt her foot rubbing against the back of my leg in an unmistakably provocative way. This doesn’t feel right, I thought to myself. I’m not the slightest bit attracted to this woman. But I’ve used her electricity and I’m drinking her tea. What should I do?

I did what one frequently does in dreams: I teleported myself into a new scene. Now I was walking away from her house. But it still worried me that I hadn’t paid for the electricity and, in any case, I needed to retrieve my computer. I walked back and knocked on her front door again. This time, when she opened the door, she gazed at me for a long time before saying, “You look depressed.”

“I am depressed,” I admitted. “But I know what to do about it.”

And I woke up.

For someone who spends so much time at the bottom of a well, I never feel lonely and am only rarely depressed. When I was a photographer, there were periods when the photographs I was making were so mediocre that the very idea of taking photographs seemed pointless. And yet I knew that the only way to improve my pictures was either to take an extended break or to press on in the hope that I’d make my way back onto the right path. I couldn’t bear the idea of stopping because I loved the process—the physicality of taking photographs and the sloshing around in the darkroom (in its own way, another kind of well). So I pressed on. And eventually made some work that satisfied me.

My “knowing what to do about it” comes from experience: when things aren’t going well, maintain one’s practice. Except these days, now that my focus is on writing, I’ve expanded the idea of practice to reading too. Which, when I think about it, isn’t a radical change since I spent so much time as a photographer looking at other people’s work.

But, as I lay in bed on Wednesday afternoon, reassembling the fragments of my dream, I realized that though I was depressed, I wasn’t depressed about writing. On Monday morning, before going to the dentist, I’d read about the attack on the Chinook helicopter that killed 16 US soldiers in Iraq on Sunday. When I returned home, I’d read David Rieff’s long New York Times Magazine article, Blueprint for a Mess.

Cover of Piers Brendon's The Dark ValleyOn Monday night I’d started to watch Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies, an animated film about an adolescent boy’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to care for his younger sister in the aftermath of the Tokyo firebombing. And, for the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Piers Brendon’s account of the inexorable march from the disaster of the Depression to the catastrophe of World War II. It’s impossible—if you have a modicum of intelligence and an even semi-open mind—not to draw parallels between what happened in the 1930s and how events are playing out in Iraq, where American policy has been formed by people who combine a doctrinaire view of history with a startling lack of empathy for non-Americans. You know we’re all in deep trouble when even a hardliner like Richard Pipes, the historian-turned-NSA-analyst who shaped the Reagan administration’s aggressive stance towards Soviet Russia, describes the architect of Bush’s Iraq policy in these terms:

“Paul [Wolfowitz] didn’t have much education in history,” Pipes says. “It’s not his field. He was educated as a military specialist, a nuclear weapons specialist. Like most scientists, he doesn’t have a particular understanding of other cultures.”

Just like an astrological confluence of planets, the books I was reading, the movie I was watching, and the tragedy unfolding in Iraq had combined to send my spirits into a tailspin. Ultimately, though, it’s little more than self-indulgence to allow one’s moods to be dominated by events which lie largely outside your control. At the same time, it takes one kind of skill to realize why you’ve wandered into the slough of despond and an entirely different set of skills to drag yourself out of it. Sometimes you need help. Or luck. Or both.

Late in the afternoon the phone rang. It was my friend Nana, asking if I’d like to get together for dinner.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m not eating out until I’ve bought all the Ozu DVD Box Sets.”

“It can be my treat,” she replied. “You sound like you need cheering up. But I’ve been teaching yoga so I’m only half-decent.”

Half an hour later I heard the front gate open and there was Nana, looking cool and elegant—and at least three-quarters-decent—in her yoga outfit.

My cat, Reimi“Let me quickly say hello to Reimi-chan.”

Reimi had walked down the hallway then stopped, stretched out her front paws, and arched her back. With typically supple grace, Nana eased onto the carpet and mimicked Reimi, who responded by licking Nana’s face and pressing against her chest.

“You can rub my boobs,” Nana told her, “because you’re a girl.”

Then we were sitting in an Italian restaurant not far from my house, deciding what to eat. We chatted about Nana’s work and her (extremely complex) love life, about Japanese painting and Ozu’s movies (both too sad, said Nana, who prefers happy things), about mutual friends. She taught me how to send SMS text messages with my new mobile phone. We didn’t discuss the war in Iraq. Three hours slipped by in an instant before I walked Nana back to her car.

The next morning, when I woke up, it occurred to me that lately I’ve been starved of female energy, that it’s not healthy for a man to forgo the company of women. But, reflecting on Teresa’s comment, I realized that it wasn’t so straightforward, that spending three hours with Nana’s introverted doppelganger wouldn’t have done me nearly as much good. I realize now how mistaken I was to respond like this to Liz Lawley’s extroversion post:

I realized that I’ve often wondered about what it might be like for an introvert to be married to (or in a relationship with) an off-the-scale extrovert. No offence to Liz, or any other extrovert, but I think I’d rather spend eternity having my fingernails pulled out. At the very least, it seems to be a recipe for unendurable torment on both sides.

My apologies to Liz. For I’ve come to the belated understanding that introverts need extroverts (albeit in carefully calibrated quantities). And who knows, maybe the inverse might also be true.

Which brings us back to Teresa’s quandary:

I really could use some direction. My guy is introvert from the word go and I am an extrovert. Seriously! We have a wonderful relationship. He is a wonderful person but, I have trouble dealing with him not being social when I am. Everything I have read leads me to believe this is normal and I being an extrovert will feel rejected. I don’t want to feel this way. I could use some advice on how to deal with his alone time without feeling rejected or ignored. I want to understand who he is.

We’ll first need to ignore the irony of Teresa’s asking advice from someone who, had he not squandered more chances than he deserved, might well be sharing a life (instead of an occasional dinner) with a woman as warm, smart, generous, beautiful, and sexy as Nana. (I’m reminded of computer pioneer Alan Kay’s quip about consultants, which brought down the house at his Macworld keynote in 1988. “Isn’t a consultant,” asked Kay, “someone who can tell you a hundred different ways to fuck but doesn’t have a girlfriend?”)

Although Language Hat was right in saying “You just have to accept him the way he is”, I’m convinced that it cuts both ways, that he has to accept you the way you are, as well. If I were in your situation, here’s what I’d do:

  • Every day make the effort to show him (not tell him) how lucky he is to be with you.
  • Accept that, as Language Hat says, when he appears to be distant, he’s still connected to you.
  • Buy a book about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and read it, then ask your boyfriend to read it too (Keirsey and Bates’ Please Understand Me or Kroeger and Thuesen’s Type Talk are both good). A long time ago, while researching the MBTI for a magazine article, I attended a Myers-Briggs couples workshop during which, over and over again, individuals experienced the most profound relief at gaining some insight into their partner’s behavior.
  • Ignore those who knock the Myers-Briggs model, at least until you no longer feel rejected or ignored and he no longer feels harrassed about being unsociable.
  • Find out the maximum number of people he’s comfortable spending a few hours with and organize some social activities within that constraint.
  • Let go of the idea that you have to do everything together. Spend time with your extroverted friends while he’s happily reading and thinking, alone.
  • Ask your question again, but this time ask an expert, by adding it to Liz Lawley’s post, an extrovert speaks (quelle surprise!). Liz is a classic extrovert, happily married (for ten years!) to a classic introvert. Listen to the voice of experience.

As for me, now that I’ve finished The Dark Valley, I’m about to start—at Dave Rogers’ suggestion—Philosophers of Nothingness. Some people never learn, you may be thinking. But that’s not true. I’ve relaxed my policy about not eating out, even if it means waiting a few more months to buy all the Ozu DVDs. So if I find myself falling into a blue funk, or suffering an attack of what Holly Golightly called the “mean reds”, I can SMS a friend and say:

R U OK 4 DINR L8R 2NITE? MY TREAT.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour